Nearly ten years ago, the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Services Agency asked voters to support a three-year millage to help pay for school operating costs. It was meant to be temporary.
“Then you had the housing crisis hit in ‘08,” says KRESA Superintendent Dave Campbell. “You had massive reductions in revenues hit multiple levels of government.” The economy is vastly different from when the millage was introduced, he says.
Since 2005, voters have renewed KRESA’s millage twice – and now it’s up for a third time.
“The need continues,” Campbell says. “The federal and the state governments – the recession has caused a shrinking of a lot of the revenues that schools are dependent on.”
Of the six proposals on Kalamazoo County’s May 6 ballot, only one – the Kalamazoo Public Library’s request to renew the 20-year millage that pays a large chunk of its operating costs – would go for something other than education.
Vicksburg Community Schools wants voters to approve a bond issue. And four other education agencies have millage proposals on the ballot, affecting schools in Kalamazoo and St. Joseph counties as well as Otsego and Plainwell in Allegan County.
KRESA’s one-and-a-half-mil tax would cost property owners in its district $1.50 for every thousand dollars of taxable property value. The agency would divide the money per student among local districts. Campbell says schools – and students – would feel the absence of those funds if the renewal failed.
“There would be about a $320 per-student reduction to each of the school districts, which is a major reduction in funding and I’m sure cuts would take place in each of the nine districts,” he says.
As with KRESA, the St. Joseph County Intermediate School District would divide the revenue from its proposed millage on a per-student basis. But the definition for allowable spending in the St. Joseph County ISD's case, says Special Education Director Jay Raycraft.
“They would not be allowed to spend it on anything that did not directly relate to the education of a special education student. So that would include anything that was for general education students – couldn’t use it for, to give you a wild example, band uniforms,” he says.
St. Joseph County voters have already approved the 2.75 mil rate the district is seeking for special education. But the state’s Headlee Amendment passed in the late 1970s means the district can’t take in the full amount without voter approval.
That’s because local agencies can’t set property tax rates higher than the current level of inflation. The Headlee limit has brought the St. Joseph County ISD’s effective tax down to just under 2.5 mils, unless voters approve an override.
Raycraft says the district needs the full millage to pay for special education programs.
“Currently all nine districts are funding a portion of those positions with general education dollars – so in a sense it would relieve some of the stress on the general education budget,” he says.
Raycraft adds that while he can’t speak for the ISD superintendent’s office, he senses the need is urgent, pointing out that the superintendents of all nine school systems in the ISD support the ballot request.
“I would say it’s gotten to the point where they’re really hurting for money,” he says.
He says the intermediate school district based in Centreville has long discussed going for a Headlee override, but before last year it had “never been the right time.”
“There never was a particular election date where there wasn’t something from some other local district on the ballot and the feeling was, well, let’s not have more than one tax request on the ballot,” he says.
“And I think it’s just a reached a point where those considerations are going away and it’s like, we just need to try anyway.”
And they did try during elections last August. But that attempt failed, with about 53 percent of voters rejecting it. Raycraft says if the measure doesn’t pass May 6, it would be up to the district superintendent to decide whether to pursue it a third time.
Back at KRESA, Superintendent Campbell says he takes nothing for granted, including that people who voted for two previous millage renewals would support a third one. But he says he’s encouraged by a recent survey’s results.
“It basically showed that a healthy percentage – I don’t remember the exact percentage – but, you know, would continue to support this millage. So that gave us the confidence that we were in line with the will of the voters,” he says.
Campbell says it’s impossible to predict whether the district would want to seek another renewal in three years.