Zach Gorchow knows his bonds, ok?
As editor of Gongwer News Service in Lansing, it’s his team’s job to comb through every bond on ballots across the state for analysis. If it’s more than $50 million, that’s a big deal. And if it’s more than $100 million, they’ll really sit up and take notice.
“And so then, when I saw the Ann Arbor one was at $1 billion, I mean, my eyes definitely widened, you know?” Gorchow says. “We haven’t seen anything like this, since we’ve been tracking this stuff.”
The Ann Arbor public school district bond on Tuesday’s ballot is one of the biggest of its kind in Michigan’s history, Gorchow says, second only to the $1.5 billion bond Detroit public schools’ did in 1994 (that’s $2.6 billion in today’s dollars, according to Gongwer).
But Ann Arbor is hardly alone in desperately needing money for crumbling infrastructure. In Michigan, districts have to pay for capital costs on their own, rather than getting help from the state.
“Most districts, you're going to see a lot of school buildings built in the 50’s and 60’s,” Gorchow says. “And those buildings are falling apart. My kids are in the East Lansing schools. All of the elementary schools are currently being rebuilt; those were built in the 50’s and 60’s. And so this is coming to a head now."
And Ann Arbor’s administrators say, look, we are in especially dire need: we’ve got 32 schools that are, on average, 63 years old. And just to keep them from falling into serious disrepair, they’re going to need $800 million over the next 20 years, according to a consultant’s assessment that was commissioned by the district.
Plus, they argue this billion dollar bond proposal will let the district “transform” schools from outdated, fluorescent lighting, radiators-banging-in-the-winter kind of classrooms, into modern, eco-friendly places with STEAM labs and “collaboration centers.”
The district says the proposal, which has won endorsements from the local chapter of the Sierra Club and others, would mean an annual tax increase of $228 for homeowners with houses worth $200,000 in market value.
For some frustrated teachers, this is about more than just the bond
If Gorchow knows school bonds, then Fred Klein typically loves school bonds.
As head of the teachers' union in Ann Arbor, Klein says they’ve almost always been happy to throw their support behind bond proposals in the past. But this time is different. The union is, officially at least, remaining “neutral.”
“I think it was a statement of frustration from the teachers, who've been feeling financial impacts of years of step freezes,” Klein says. (“Steps” are the annual scheduled pay raises for teachers as they move up in experience and education levels.)
“We haven't had a cost of living increase on our salary schedule since 2006. We've had a few concessions along the years. So teachers have felt like this district and this administration has not prioritized teachers in its budgets. And it was just out of that frustration that we decided that we would not lend our name and support for this current initiative.”
Not all teachers oppose the bond, Klein says. Some of his members argued for it. But for those like first-grade teacher Gabby Taylor, after years of pay cuts, concessions, and freezes, this feels like their only leverage.
“If the district sees that teachers not supporting one of their goals, result in it not passing, maybe they'll value us a little bit more,” she says. “Maybe they'll realize that the community has our backs. And that's a lot of people supporting us."
It’s 4:15 pm on Halloween (Taylor’s in a crayon costume) and you can feel teachers breathing a sigh of relief in the now-quiet hallways. As you walk into Taylor’s room, you pass the pictures her kids have drawn in response to the question, “What are your hopes and dreams for this school year?” (Pajama parties are clearly a top priority. “We’ve already done three,” Taylor says.)
She and Anita Ringo, a 31-year teaching veteran, are sitting in Taylor’s room. Don’t get them wrong, they say: they would love to see their building renovated. Heck, Taylor would settle for A/C in her classroom. But they’ve had years of broken promises from the district, and nothing else seems to be working.
"If we can make our voices heard and our stance known, then maybe we do have a little bit of power here," Taylor says.
The district’s message to teachers: let’s fix this together
Rebecca Lazarus knows teachers are frustrated. She was elected to the Ann Arbor school board just last year with union support.
“I hear that, I see that,” Lazarus says. "It saddens me that the district is in this situation where the culture and the relationships are somewhat tenuous and stressed at this point. Because this is such an important bond question for the district, and for the community, to really determine: how do we want to see our public schools?"
Legally, the district can’t use bond money to pay teachers, Lazarus says. And already, 90% of the general fund is going to salaries, she says, even as retirement costs keep rising. Neighboring districts are getting bigger increases in per-pupil funding from the state, according to Lazarus, and Ann Arbor’s enrollment is expected to increase by about 1,000 kids in the next five years.
The reality is, she says, is that teachers and the district need to work together to change school funding at the state level.
“This is something that is starting to swell up in districts like Ann Arbor because we cannot handle it anymore. We have to pay our teachers more, and the only way school districts can do that: we have to work with our legislators to make sure they fund our schools properly.”
But Anita Ringo, the elementary school teacher of 31 years, says while she’s grateful for Lazarus’ vocal support for teachers, they’ve heard this argument before.
“They're repeating the same excuses that we have heard for a decade, and our response to that is we're tired of waiting. It's just an excuse. We're not a goal yet. Put it at the top of your list of goals to be achieved. It's very nebulous and vague to say, ‘We have to change things at the state level before we can make changes you’re asking for at the local level.’
“It seems from our perspective, that when they make a choice and set a goal to do something in the schools, they find a way to achieve it. What we're saying is, that needs to be the goal before we will support anything else.”
What happens if it fails?
“We’re in trouble,” Lazarus says. “The district will be in trouble.” If the bond does fail, she says, administrators will have to propose a far smaller, bare-bones bond that’s just about “keeping the doors open.”
Whichever way the vote goes in Ann Arbor on Tuesday, Gongwer editor Zach Gorchow says it could have a ripple effect for other districts.
“If it passes, it's going to be encouraging,” Gorchow says. “If it were to be defeated, you will certainly see, ‘Well, boy, if Ann Arbor, which is such a liberal, tax-friendly city, won't support something really substantial like this, what are our chances?’"