If Superintendent Ron Caniff could deliver two messages to every registered voter in Kent ISD, they would be these: 1. please vote today; 2. understand what you are voting for.
Much is riding on today’s ballot proposal requesting an enhancement millage for all 20 districts served by Kent ISD. If approved, the 0.9 mill levy would provide nearly $20 million next year to help fund the education of the ISD’s 94,000-plus students, and would continue that operational support for 10 years.
The ISD is requesting the millage under a state authorization being used in our area for the first time. As superintendent of Kent ISD, Caniff says it’s crucial for people to cast their votes on a proposal he admits has not been easy for residents to understand.
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Source: Kent ISD
“It’s essential that the taxpayers and stakeholders that make up the electorate of our public schools within Kent ISD make their voices heard,” Caniff said. “The way they do that is at the ballot box.”
And if you’re still unclear as to what the proposal entails, Caniff sympathizes. After all, it’s the first time local voters have been asked to approve such a millage since it was authorized under Proposal A about 20 years ago, as a way for local districts to raise more money for classrooms and other needs when state funding falls short. Though by law, enhancement requests are put on the ballot by an ISD, all funds will go to local districts to spend as they wish at $211 per student.
“Understandably, it’s not something our voters are familiar with,” Caniff said. “But once you explain it, the response we’ve received has been positive,” he added, noting the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce has endorsed it and that he’s not aware of organized opposition.
All Districts Feeling Pinched
Local superintendents have been holding informational meetings in their communities for the past two months, including more than 50 in Rockford alone. If you need to do more homework before voting, the Strong Schools, Strong Communities website offers detailed explanations of why the millage is being requested, how much it will cost homeowners and what its $19.9 million would be used for.
Numerous mailings have been sent out to voters in the ISD, which includes all of Kent County and a portion of Barry County. Those mailings, along with a short informational video, explain that districts will use the funding to help students prepare for college and careers, maintain programs, retain and attract quality teachers and serve the needs of students in poverty.
In a series of interviews with School News Network, local superintendents have stressed their districts’ needs for additional operating dollars. Proposal A prevents districts from asking local voters to increase their millage rates for operations. Districts may only ask for bond issues and sinking funds for facilities and technology.
Understanding that the enhancement millage is the only way local districts can raise more operating dollars is crucial to making an informed vote, Caniff said. Simply put, the per-pupil funding allocated by the state has not kept up with the cost of living, he said.
“The need is very real, and pervasive,” he said, noting that the 20 districts collectively have drawn down their fund balances, or savings accounts, by $33 million over the past eight years. At the same time, they’ve held down spending to 0.6 percent, he said, a fact he called “remarkable” in light of increased costs such as healthcare and utilities.
The trend is not just hurting low-income districts, but more affluent ones as well, he added, because the state provides less money per pupil to wealthier districts.
“The need is very different from one district to the next, but each of our districts certainly have been feeling the pinch,” Caniff said. “As one superintendent said, ‘I have enough to buy each student one Jimmy John’s sandwich,’ in terms of the small increases they receive from Lansing.”
Voters Get One Shot
Although every district will receive the same $211 per student if the proposal is approved, some districts will receive more total revenue than their tax base generates, others less and others about the same. That’s because the uniform per-student amount is required by Proposal A, which aimed to reduce funding inequities among school districts, Caniff said.
Grand Rapids Public Schools, the ISD’s most populous district, would receive the largest share, at $3.5 million. In the We Are GR newsletter, GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal said the millage “will help provide reliable, critical funding to support high-quality classroom instruction and essential school programs.”
The smallest district, Kent City, would receive $284,000, but that, too, would be critical support for its 1,340 students, said Superintendent Mike Weiler: “For us, $211 per kid is a big deal.”
Approval of the enhancement millage would be a big deal for all 20 districts, Caniff said. On the other hand, if it fails, he said it would be “very unlikely we would go back to voters anytime soon,” while state economic pressures only promise to get worse.
“I’m very hopeful, but I’m certainly not overconfident,” Caniff said of the chances for approval. “It will come down to who shows up at the polls. It will provide our kids with some great opportunities going forward if it is successful.”