How often does the financing of facilities and infrastructure for Michigan schools and local governments make news in The Washington Post? Rhetorical question.
An article in a Nov. 27 edition of The Washington Post caught my eye: “Detroit and Flint keep relying on private money to solve public problems. Why?”
Detroit and Flint have been in the news the last few years. Detroit because of its bankruptcy filing and Flint because of lead in the drinking water. Both cities and several more cities and school districts have been under the authority of emergency managers appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder.
The article further caught my eye as it was written by professors from Michigan State and Grand Valley. Here’s one of the details from the article: “Michigan school facilities are funded solely by local property taxes. That’s not true in most other states; more than 75 percent give local districts grants or aid for school construction, which can reduce district inequalities. … Children in poor areas therefore face crumbling facilities, compounding poverty’s existing disadvantages.”
Our neighbors in Indiana, for instance, fund school facilities through a statewide program. The article got me to remembering that former state Sen. Ron Jelinek was discussing this very issue of inequality in school facility funding before he was term-limited. Unfortunately, Sen. Jelinek’s discussions went nowhere in Lansing. It’s a shame. Many legislators’ constituents in rural and older suburban districts would benefit from a reform of school facility funding.
One way to measure how bad the problem is would be to look at the disparity in property values per student between districts. Taxable values per student in Michigan schools shift almost constantly. The following figures are a snap shot of the disparity from this fall.
Let’s just take a look at schools in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties. From a property-tax-value-per-student standpoint, there were 41,789 blend count students in 27 K-12 school districts in the three intermediate school districts, Berrien RESA, Lewis Cass ISD and Van Buren ISD, which roughly represent the boundaries of the three counties. The total taxable value of property in the three intermediate districts is about $13.6 billion. That makes the average property value per district about $324,500 per student.
The average does not tell the whole story. The range of property values per student for districts is from $1.9 million (Covert) to $100,000 (Hartford) per student. Let me say that in a different way. In order for Hartford to raise the same amount of money for facilities per student that Covert could raise with a 1.0 mill facility tax, Hartford would have to ask its voters for 19 mills. That is simply not possible.
That is the extreme example. Let’s look at some others. River Valley Schools has a property value per student of nearly $1.4 million. Watervliet’s property value per student is $161,000 or 1/12th that of River Valley. River Valley has the fourth wealthiest property value per student in the tri-county area. Watervliet is the fourth poorest.
In Cass County, the property tax disparity ranges from $516,000 per student (Cassopolis) to $168,000 per student (Edwardsburg).
In fact, 19 of the 27 school districts have a property value per student less than the average for the tri-county area. Thirteen of those same districts have a property value per student at least 30 percent lower than the average for the area. So, their property taxes would have to be 30 percent higher to achieve what the “average” district in the area could accomplish with a facility tax.
The Washington Post article further states, “Private donations can fill gaps, but they cannot replace more reliable streams of funding for essential public services such as clean drinking water, fire and police protection and public education.”
Will Michigan ever step to the plate and recognize the disparity in facility funding between Michigan school districts? I hope so, but I don’t know. Improving the equity in facility funding between Michigan schools would be a heavy lift. But that doesn’t mean that Lansing should not at least be discussing the issue and searching for fairer solutions. Sen. Jelinek started a conversation while he was in office. I urge our current representatives in Lansing to continue that dialogue.
Kids who participate in extra-curricular activities and visit other schools can see with their own eyes the disparity in facilities between school districts. While the solution is likely to be complex and difficult, it is not an issue that adults should ignore
Robert L. Burgess, a Michigan native, has lived in Lincoln Township since 1993. His email is: email@example.com.