LINCOLN - With Alcona Community Schools' budget concerns and upcoming regional enhancement millage election through Alpena-Montmorency-Alcona Educational School District, some Alcona taxpayers on the western or southern fringes of the county are wondering why their tax dollars go toward Oscoda or Fairview schools instead of Alcona's. The answer is complicated, say Alcona and AMA officials, but the situation is unlikely to change.
More than a third of Alcona County's geographic area sits in the districts of either Fairview Area Schools to the west or Oscoda Area Schools to the south, and some parents have suggested incorporating the rest of the county into Alcona Community Schools as an answer to the school's funding shortage. AMA Superintendent Brian Wilmot said school district lines have not changed in decades, and the reasons have to do with both precedent and policy.
"This is a good question. Actually, it's much more frequently not the case that a school district would incorporate a whole county. Alpena is kind of an exception more than the rule," he said, as Alpena used to have separate schools in Hubbard Lake, Wilson Township, and other areas of the county before they consolidated into Alpena Public Schools. "There is the situation ... where someone across the street from their neighbor attends a different school district, because there has to be a line somewhere, and that's been decided by people many, many years ago as to what their school district boundaries would be."
Wilmot said school district lines do not necessarily conform to county lines, but instead are based on population centers and proximity to campuses, and the only way to change them is with a vote of the residents of two school districts in question. The difficulty of expanding a district has to do with the fact that generations of students, sports teams and tax dollars build strong allegiances between residents and their schools.
"(Alcona) can't just, by a resolution of their board, say 'We're going to expand our boundary,'" he said. "What it would take (to expand the district west) would be votes of the residents of both Alcona Community Schools and Fairview Area Schools to do that, and it happens very rarely, and it happens very rarely because people don't want to give up their schools."
Residence determines where tax dollars go, but state law still allows parents to choose where, within an intermediate school district like AMA, to send their children. No one pays school taxes to a non-local school district except in the case of non-homestead properties, and Wilmot believes the state's "Schools of Choice" policy has given parents flexibility by allowing those within any of AMA's constituent districts to send their children to a neighboring district at will.
Alcona Superintendent Shawn Thornton said the only people who will be able to vote on the enhancement millage on Feb. 26, 2013, will be homestead residents whose money would be going to AMA; in other words, residents of Oscoda or Fairview school districts will not be able to vote on the millage, even if they technically reside in Alcona County. She called the enhancement millage the school's "only opportunity to be able to ask the community for help" before either slashing programs to a fraction of their current state or having to borrow money, which the school is very reluctant and possibly unable to do.
"When a school borrows money, it's different from a person, for example, who can take a long-term loan. We have to pay back that interest within the course of that same fiscal year, so we have to have the ability to do that," she said. "The only other option that we would have at our discretion would be the sinking fund, but that has very strict limitations for use of the money and could not, for example, be used for teachers or added support personnel so that we can restore some of the programs that have gone away."
Andrew Westrope can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693.