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TCAPS (Traverse City Public Schools) Leaning Toward 2017 Bond?

TCAPS Leaning Toward 2017 Bond?

January 26, 2015
TCAPS Leaning Toward 2017 Bond?

Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) board members will meet tonight to discuss a critical decision: whether to put another capital bond proposal on the ballot this fall.

Previous bond proposals failed in 2012 and 2013; an operational homestead millage mandated by the state passed in November, but doesn't relieve the district’s capital infrastructure needs. Faced with declining student enrollment, aging school buildings and a tapped fund balance projected to be at 6.5 percent this year (compared to the district’s goal of 10 percent and a proposed state definition of fiscal distress at 5 percent), TCAPS is facing tough decisions.

“The community has already said no (to a bond proposal) twice: that’s the bottom line,” TCAPS Interim Superintendent Paul Soma tells The Ticker. “So do we dust it off and go right back? Or do we take the time to reflect...and come back with something different?”

Board vice president and finance committee member Erik Falconer says his recommendation tonight will be to wait until fall 2017 – skipping next year’s presidential election – to buy the board time to fully engage the community in the district’s strategy and goals. Soma backs that approach and says TCAPS has a plan prepared for a worst-case “no new dollars” scenario that would focus the district’s remaining $52 million in bond authorization over the next six years on bus replacement, technology needs and "critical capital projects."

“That would mean no major projects: no elementary reconstructs, no additions to buildings and no new programs like robotics, which was one of our aspirations,” says Soma. “The problem with (that plan) is it involves short-term fixes to infrastructure that’s exceeded its useful life,” including major roof and system repairs to keep Interlochen, Eastern and Glenn Loomis elementary schools open. Directing “band-aid” dollars into buildings “which should have been replaced” will delay their long-term renovation and kick other anticipated capital projects – like Central Grade School and the district’s 100-year-old administration building – even further down the road, says Soma.

If the board does delay a bond proposal until 2017, members will need to review budget priorities for the coming years – discussions that could involve potential school closures, acknowledge both Soma and Falconer. The last two bond proposals received city support, but failed in the outlying rural areas; student population trends also show a migration to “in-town” schools. Some officials have wondered if it would make sense, then, to consolidate TCAPS' resources behind schools with stronger attendance and community support.

“Those things have to be looked at and considered,” says Soma. “When student population is declining, and those students come with dollars attached, and you’re trying to plan for compensation and looking to increase your fund balance…you have to make a determination how long you’re going to let that situation go on. We’d wouldn’t be a good steward of taxpayer dollars if we didn’t consider all those factors.”

Amidst the debate over finances and a bond proposal, TCAPS is seeking a new superintendent (Soma says he’s “considering” applying for the position) and also stepping up outreach efforts to engage the community in its conversations. “It’s important people know this dialogue is going to be happening over the next several months,” says Soma. “Community input is going to be a vital part of the process.”

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