"It seems like we're going to be able to count tonight as a win, for the district and for the district's children," campaign committee treasurer Steve Norton told a small crowd of about 20 Ann Arbor school administrators, board members, and supporters, who broke into applause at a downtown pizza place late Tuesday evening.
Ann Arbor, with its liberal college town reputation, almost always likes to say "yes" when the public school district asks for a tax hike. And it may be one of the few places where a billion dollar school bond would fly.
But it’s hardly alone in having aging, deteriorating buildings that will need major repairs in the next few years, the district says. Superintendent Jeanice Swift says districts don't have a lot of options, partly because Michigan doesn't give schools money specifically for capital projects, and because the state recently ranked "dead last" for school funding growth.
"That's our dubious distinction right now in this state," Swift said Tuesday night. "And yet this community has pulled one lever that's available to us. And there aren't many available to locals. This is one of those, is a capital infusion bond."
One of the other selling points made to voters: rather than get repeated millage proposals on the ballot every few years, this bond would ostensibly cover 20 years of improvements, from repairing and renovating every single school building in an environmentally friendly way, to replacing buses and technology, and buying musical instruments.
But the first steps, Swift says, are about getting back to basics.
"That's getting air conditiong into classrooms that are very warm on many days at the end of the year and the beginning of the year...[And] we've been working on our filtered water in all of our schools. This is functioning kitchens in every school, so that we can prepare healthy and nutritious food from scratch at the school, that we're not able to do right now. So these are amazing resources that our parents and students have asked for."
But some teachers were urging parents and residents to vote no. After years of paycuts and concessions, they feel like the district keeps putting other things, like new programs or even hiring more staff, ahead of teachers. "Everything else is prioritized," says Fred Klein, president of the Ann Arbor teacher's union. "They come to us with what's leftover [after they've created their budget] and it sends the message, 'You're not the priority.' That's the message we hear."
Teachers willingly made sacrifices during the recession, Klein says. "When we saw the cuts to programs, we said yes to those. Now we're seeing programs expanding, small increases from the state, and yet none of that is trickling down to teachers."
But Swift and several board members say their hands are tied by the state. "Our teachers and our staff are a fundamental priority for this district. What's true for Ann Arbor that's not true for most other districts out there: our status as a hold harmless district means that's we're $193 [in] per pupil [funding] less than we were 12 years ago. So...when the 2x funding occurs [in state funding to schools] in Ann Arbor we get half of the increase that the other districts do. We have our priorities, we understand our priorities, and yet the reality is brutal on day-to-day operating dollars in Michigan. It's just the truth."