CONSTANTINE, Mich. — Imagine a public school without any athletic programs, or buses to take kids to school.
That’s what Constantine Public Schools’ administration is imagining, and it might become a reality in the 2014-15 school year if people living in the school district don’t approve a budget issue on Nov. 5.
Because of a 1995 law, Michigan public school districts get part of their operating budget every year from a millage on businesses and second homes, according to Constantine Schools superintendent Chuck Frisbie. A millage is a tax on the value of the business or the second home. The millage does not affect people who own just one home.
The school is supposed to get 18 mills — $1.6 million — each year. That $1.6 million is a big chunk of the school’s total yearly budget of $12 million.
Over time, Frisbie said, the school has actually only been receiving 16.67 mills because of falling property values. That’s a loss of about $110,000 per year, he said. So the school system is already struggling to make do without part of the money it needs to operate. The school has held elections every year for the past three years in an attempt to have the public vote to raise the number of mills back up to 18. These elections, said Frisbie, have been unsuccessful. His concern is that people do not realize that this year’s election on Nov. 5 won’t just be shorting the schools by $100,000. The effect of a failed election this time, Frisbie said, would be a death blow to the school.
“Right now, we levy 18 mills on second homes and businesses,” Frisbie explained Monday, Sept. 23. “That needs to be renewed every 20 years. If it’s not renewed we go from 18 mills to zero. That’s a loss of $1.6 million from the general fund.”
He added, “If we were to cut busing and athletics, that doesn’t even make up the loss. If we were to lose $1.6 million out of our $12 million budget, that would be devastating to our school district.”
Though all Michigan public school districts are funded in part by a millage, Frisbie said that the number of years that passes between each renewal is up to the schools to decide. For example, he said that Edwardsburg Public Schools renews its millage every year, rather than every 20 years.
Mark Westerburg, superintendent of New Buffalo Area Schools, said that New Buffalo renews its millage every five years. So far, he added, local residents have passed the renewal every time.
“We educate our folks on (the renewal),” Westerburg said Wednesday. “In New Buffalo, it’s critical that we get the 18 mills. We let the people know, this is the state’s funding mechanism. It’s not something our school board came up with. Without (the 18 mills), there would be dramatic changes to our school.”
He added, “I like to tell people, nobody likes to pay taxes and millages, but your issue is not with the school. Your issue is with the legislation.”
Chris Scherer is a member of a group of about 15 parents who are trying to spread the word about the Nov. 5 vote for the Constantine school district. She has two children in Constantine Schools.
“The school has to be careful because of legal limits they have in getting the word out, and we are concerned that people may not know what a big deal this is,” Scherer said Monday. “Because there have been votes in the past that have failed and people have not seen a problem (as a result of the failed efforts to restore full funding), I think people will think, ‘Well this is just another one of those votes,’ and it’s not.”
Scherer worries that if the school loses the $1.6 million of its yearly budget, the cuts school administrators would have to make will destroy not only the school, but also the community.
“I’m concerned for my kids, but I’m also concerned for the community as a whole,” Scherer said. “If you can’t sustain a viable school system, you can’t sustain a viable community.”
So far, the parent group has been passing out information at football games and participating in meetings that the school hosts to explain the situation, Scherer said. The next meeting is at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 2, in the Constantine Middle School cafeteria.
The school has also put together an information sheet that includes frequently asked questions. This information can be found on the Constantine Schools website, www.constps.org.
Frisbie said that fact sheet on the website has been frequently visited. Other than that, he said he hopes news of the election will travel by word of mouth, and that people will decide their vote based on facts, not rumors or misinformation.
“If you don’t like it, at least that will be because of the facts and you aren’t basing that on something that’s not true,” Frisbie said.