Should voters approve a May 2 ballot request to help fund 20 local school districts, officials say there is no doubt where that money will go in Grand Rapids Public Schools: to all the classrooms where nearly 17,000 students do their work every day.
For GRPS, the 0.9 mill enhancement millage requested by the Kent ISD would yield $3.5 million next school year, providing badly needed support for teachers and students after decades of drastic cuts, officials say.
"We want 100 percent of these dollars to be going right into the classroom to positively impact teaching and learning," said John Helmholdt, GRPS executive director of communications and external affairs. "We've got to do everything we can to make sure teachers have the tools, resources and instructional practices to really raise student achievement."
On the other hand, without additional funding the district faces about $3 million to $4 million in budget cuts next year, despite its first enrollment increase in two decades and Gov. Snyder's proposed $100-per-pupil aid increase. If the enhancement millage passes, Helmholdt said, "we may not need to make that cut."
With by far the largest enrollment in the Kent ISD, Grand Rapids would realize the largest funding share of the 10-year tax increase. The millage would provide $211 per student to each of the Kent ISD's 20 local districts, for a total of $19.9 million. Each school district would be free to spend its share as it chose under rules authorized by 1994's Proposal A, which shifted school funding in Michigan from local property taxes to the state.
This is the first time Kent ISD has asked for an enhancement millage. Officials say it's needed because per-pupil aid to local schools has lagged far behind the cost of living for years. Although local districts can raise bond money for building and technology improvements, a countywide enhancement millage is their only way to increase operational funding, officials say.
As Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff put it after the Kent ISD board authorized the request, "Our districts can't continue on this path, they just can't."
Stable Revenue Source Essential
In GRPS, the millage would help the district recover from 20 years of cutbacks that saw 35 schools close, 1,000 jobs eliminated and $100 million whacked from the budget, Helmholdt said. Those cuts came at steep costs to students, and the district's fund balance dipped "dangerously low," he said.
Further, besides state funding falling behind inflation, there's increased uncertainty about the fate of federal funds under the Trump administration, he added. GRPS receives about $50 million in federal funds for low-income, disadvantaged and special-education students, he said.
Despite the financial stress, Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal's Transformation Plan has produced gains in academic achievement, attendance and enrollment in recent years, Helmholdt noted. The enhancement millage would enhance that upward trajectory, he said.
"Now that we as a district are finally starting to stabilize, this millage is a key piece of this equation," Helmholdt said. "In order for the Transformation Plan to continue to succeed, having a dedicated, stable source of revenue is absolutely essential."
The millage would be spent on the classroom in specific areas: kindergarten readiness; proficiency in third-grade reading, seventh-grade science and eighth-grade math; and college and career readiness. Support could range from classroom materials and technology to increased professional development for teachers, Helmholdt said.
Neal, who has grandchildren in GRPS, framed the issue in both personal and civic terms: "I'm Nana first, and as a Nana, I want what is best for my grandkids, my children, and all their friends and family. So when I look at why voters should vote yes, it's about doing right by kids and ensuring they have the tools, resources, and supports needed to succeed. We all have a stake in the future of our community's children."
'No More Tricks in the Bag'
If a majority of voters turn down the millage, however, GRPS would likely have to eliminate jobs, lay off teachers and delay purchasing curriculum and textbooks, Helmholdt said. In a "worst-case scenario," it could also mean closing schools, as has been done in the past to cope with major deficits, he said. Having already made extensive cuts and consolidations, he added, "There's no more tricks in the bag for GRPS."
The district has begun sending home flyers, making robocalls and using social media to get the word out on the millage. Information will also be shared at parent nights and neighborhood meetings. An independent "Yes for Kids" campaign is also gearing up for door-to-door visits and mailings.
Helmholdt said the only group he knows of opposing the millage is the Grand Rapids Taxpayers Association, which announced its opposition after all 20 local school district boards backed it. Association President Michael Farage told MLive, "Overall, many people simply cannot afford another millage in some areas," noting voters already passed tax increases for the Grand Rapids Public Museum and Kent County Zoo. On its Facebook page, the group calls the proposal "Another $$ grab by the liberals who are rolling in CASH $$$."
Helmholdt disputed the group's claims, noting it also opposed the $175 million bond issue voters approved for GRPS in 2015. He further noted the district's 1.0 mill Warm, Safe and Dry sinking fund expired last year, so Grand Rapids taxpayers would actually pay 0.1 mill less under the 0.9 mill enhancement millage than they have been.
"This is out of touch with the fiscal reality our schools have faced for the last decade," Helmholdt said. "By opposing this, they are opposing our students, opposing our teachers, opposing our schools."
May 2 Millage Vote
What it Means for your SchoolsOn May 2, voters in the Kent ISD will be asked to approve a 0.9-mill tax for local school districts, generating $211 per student to maintain programs and improve services. School News Network is offering information on what the millage means for each of the 20 districts in the Kent ISD. Today we focus on Grand Rapids Public Schools.
By Charles Honey, Courtesy of School News Network