Districts face hard choices in timing of ballot requests

Most in Kent ISD sticking with May 5 election

With eight school districts in Kent ISD having funding requests scheduled for the May 5 election, district leaders have had to weigh whether to go ahead as scheduled, or postpone them because of the coronavirus health crisis.  

For now, the election will proceed as planned, and most local districts are sticking with the date. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is encouraging absentee voting by sending out absentee ballot applications to every registered voter in election jurisdictions this week. 

Scott Smith

In Kent ISD, seven districts have decided to stay on the ballot, while one has delayed the vote. The Cedar Springs Public Schools Board of Education voted March 20 to postpone its $68 million bond proposal, and is taking steps to move the request to the primary election Aug. 4, Superintendent Scott Smith said. 

“In light of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our community, the Board determined that it was not the right time to ask our community to vote on such a significant issue,” Smith said. “Their decision to postpone the election was out of respect to the current degree of health and financial uncertainty in our community.”

Other districts weighed other considerations. In Northview Public Schools, a $36.7 million, no-millage-increase bond renewal will stay on the ballot primarily because delaying the vote would mean having to then ask for a millage increase, as the current debt millage of 2.608 mills expires June 30. 

Moving from a ballot measure that extends the current millage rate to an increase “would simply make the task of providing accurate information even more difficult,” Superintendent Scott Korpak said, noting the funds requested for building renovations, technology and other improvements are “real needs.”

Mail-in Could Increase Turnout  

Other local districts with tax requests scheduled for May 5 include: 

  • Byron Center, $80 million bond proposal;
  • Caledonia, $88 million bond proposal and non-homestead operating millage renewal;
  • Comstock Park, non-homestead operating millage renewal;
  • Godwin Heights, $13.9 million bond proposal;
  • Kelloggsville, 1-mill sinking fund request;
  • Kenowa Hills, $67 million bond proposal.

Despite the turmoil of the coronavirus crisis – including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order and closure of schools until at least April 13 – schools’ revenue needs haven’t stopped. The state-authorized, 18-mill non-homestead tax is crucial to district budgets, accounting for 25 percent or more of their operating funds. The bond proposals would pay for major expenses such as a new grades 5/6 building in Byron Center and $24.5 million in building renovations in Northview.

Scott Korpak

“In the end, we have been holding on for the last three years to get to this time,” Korpak said. “This bond is about real needs. Needs that are going to be paid for one way or the other. Either it will be through the general fund – which we think is going to take a significant hit next year because of this crisis – or it comes from the bond.”

While voters going to polling places could challenge the current 6-feet social distance mandate statewide, the absentee ballots being mailed to all voters could actually increase turnout, Korpak said. He added that Plainfield Township is predicting a record compared to past May elections.

“A high voter turnout is very positive, not because we think it will benefit our chances but because it means community members are engaged. We have no idea if a high voter turnout will benefit or hinder the passage of our bond proposal. Regardless, more voters is a good thing.”

Korpak added that the district is concerned delaying the vote could be interpreted as school officials worrying a higher turnout might mean the question has less chance of being approved. “That is obviously not the case, and we do not want there to be any perception of such,” he said. 

Pros and Cons to a Delay  

Not all agree with keeping the election on May 5. State Sen. Ruth Johnson, chair of the Senate Elections Committee and former secretary of state, urged Whitmer in a March 18 letter to postpone the election until August. Johnson cited concerns about local clerks’ ability to recruit election workers, health risks to those workers processing voters and counting absentee ballots, and the close proximity of workers and voters seeking same-day registration.

In a statement issued this week, Secretary of State Benson said her office will help ensure health and safety guidelines are followed by election workers, and that voters will be told voting by mail is the “optimal way” to cast ballots. 

Delaying until August would mean some districts would be unable to renew their operational millages in time for summer tax bills, and would lose the summer construction months for building projects, school officials say. 

“I’ve heard no formal legislative discussion to (delay), nor would they likely have time to execute something like that given they are in session a very limited number of days,” said Chris Glass, legislative lobbyist for The Talent Triangle, a collaboration of Kent ISD, Ottawa Area ISD and Muskegon ISD.

However, in Cedar Springs’ case, district leaders felt any short-term financial sacrifices were outweighed by the pressing problems of the coronavirus, Superintendent Smith said.

The $68 million bond proposal — which follows an $81 million request rejected by voters in November — includes 12 additional high school classrooms, safety and security updates, building improvements and an optimized heating and cooling system.

By delaying the vote until August, administrators will do what’s most needed in the growing district, Smith said.

“We will continue to be as creative as possible in regard to our limited spaces,” he said. “We will continue to use general fund dollars as well as our Building and Site Sinking Fund dollars to address repair projects as needed.”

The board saw no negatives in its unanimous vote, he said, adding, “The greatest positive is that moving the election to a later date gives our voters an opportunity to focus on their health and well-being during these turbulent times.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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