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TCAPS to Face Tough Decisions in 2014
TCAPS to Face Tough Decisions in 2014

In the aftermath of the failure of two bond proposals for Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) in November, district officials are now faced with the difficult task of determining where and how in the budget the $48 million shortfall will be reconciled in 2014 – and beyond.

TCAPS board member Megan Crandall serves on the district's finance and operations committee and is reviewing scenarios with that group. The most obvious option – submitting another presumably revised bond proposal again next year – is one Crandall says she would have “a hard time justifying” after back-to-back failures.

“There would have to be a change in the community, a change in sentiment, for me to be comfortable going forward with another bond proposal,” she says.

TCAPS must also put an 18 mills non-homestead measure on next fall's ballot – a renewal of an existing millage mandated by the state for school districts to receive full state aid – or risk delaying it to 2015, when it would be considered a new tax proposal. With such an important ask already on the table for 2014, attempting to simultaneously pass a third bond request would be a dicey proposition.

The board has other options, but Crandall acknowledges none are likely to be popular. The district's failed $35.2 million capital improvements bond was intended to go primarily toward the reconstruction of Interlochen, Glen Loomis and Eastern elementary schools. Interlochen – which is nearing the end of its useful life as a facility – is in the poorest condition and requires a new roof. During what she calls the committee's “incredibly preliminary discussions,” Crandall has raised the possibility of closing the school rather than investing in costly short-term repairs.

“There's so much that needs to happen to that building,” she says. “To invest a large amount of money in a facility that has maybe five more years of life...seems like a huge waste of taxpayer dollars.” While Crandall says the idea of closing another school “is abhorrent to any board member,” the district has a responsibility to consider every available cost-savings scenario.

“They're all going to be difficult cuts and changes to make, and I want to talk about them as early as possible,” she says.

Another possibility is uncapping its millage rate, which is currently held at 3.1. Both the current and previous board promised the public to maintain that rate, but some board members believe uncapping it might be the district's only solution to avoiding school closures. Committee-level discussions on the possibility of raising the rate will begin in January, with the board taking up the issue in February.

All of the difficult decisions before the district and the bond proposal defeats raise a larger issue for TCAPS, one Crandall believes is perhaps the most important for its leadership to resolve. In a city that has twice rejected millage proposals and generated just a single application for a school board vacancy (Marjorie Rich's open seat), how engaged is the community with its school district and how can that engagement be improved?

“We need to have a community conversation about whether we can continue to exist as one big school district,” says Crandall. “Do residents in East Bay still want to be a part of TCAPS? Are people in Acme willing to support the educational needs of those in Long Lake Township? With multiple high schools, multiple communities and 10,000 students...sometimes it's easy for the message to get lost, for people to just not engage with any of it."

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