February isn't all about hearts, flowers, or candy. This year, residents within the Alpena-Montmorency-Alcona Educational Service District will have a key role in the fate of their school districts.
On Feb. 26, residents will cast their vote on an intermediate school district millage of 3 mills for a period of 10 years. Alpena Public Schools Superintendent Brent Holcomb said the millage is not an enhancement, but is considered a survival millage. He said most people can agree that schools are in financial dire straits, but what are taxpayers and other local entities views on the millage, which may be assessed against all property in AMA ESD to provide assistance with operating funds.
"I think the schools need it. The state hasn't done much money-wise. They definitely need the money, but I don't think this millage is a total fix," Montmorency Commissioner Daryl Peterson said. "Alpena will be getting a lot more than any other school district, which bothers me because all of the schools are in need."
According to the millage language, the limitation on the amount of taxes that may be assessed against all property in AMA ESD will be increased by 3 mills ($3 on each $1,000 of taxable valuation) for 10 years, 2013-2022 to provide state and local funding for school district operating purposes. The estimated revenue the ISD will collect if the millage is approved and levied on 2013 is approximately $5,604,704.
"The biggest thing is the effect 3 mills will have on an average taxpayer. I don't think we can do that in this economy right now. Every business will have at least 5 percent increase in taxes, how do they pay for that, they increase their prices and rates," Peterson said. "The millage is a wonderful thing for each school district, but it would be better if all of the money raised stayed in their district and not spread out."
According to the AMA ESD millage facts, the approximate revenue raised by Alcona will amount to $1,529,056, Alpena $3,079,685, Atlanta $504,355, and Hillman $527,768. However, the revenue raised by the millage will be distributed to each district on a per-pupil basis. Based on the audited pupil count of February 2012, Alcona would receive $797,129, Alpena $4,052,586, Atlanta $258,888 and Hillman $532,101.
"It's a per-pupil basis. It's a hard thing to accept, but this is a big issue. I don't blame anyone, but it doesn't change the reality for us. This is the only way we can get the dollars we need to sustain our schools," Bob Petrovich, Alcona co-chair for Our Kids First Committee and former teacher, said.
Alcona Superintendent Shawn Thornton said the millage is a survival tactic and the district would not ask for extra money if it wasn't already on its knees. She said the millage would go toward sustaining Alcona's programs, which currently does exclude vocal programs, librarians, elementary art, athletic transportation, dual enrollment busing, and field trips without fundraising.
"The millage will keep us where we're currently at. The revenue generated by our community is lower than what our school will get in return, but if the millage doesn't pass we'll hurt," Thornton said. "We are positioning to borrow, but that will lead to more money issues."
Alpena Community College President Olin Joynton said the enhancement millage for public education is something he can support, but could not take an official stand on the issue.
"The well being of Alpena Public Schools is critical for the success of ACC, two-thirds of Alpena High School graduates choose ACC for college," Joynton said. "I have personally contributed to the millage enhancement campaign fund and I have held a private discussion with Superintendent Holcomb on the campaign in order to understand the issues better."
However, Joynton said it is not traditional for educational boards to take positions on one another's millage campaigns.
"I do not expect the ACC trustees to express themselves by means of an official resolution. Instead, they will express themselves as individuals as they see fit," Joynton said. "My main concern is letters in the paper have not been supportive, but any request to increase taxes is controversial ... The bottom line is perception and reality, businesses and taxpayers will be paying more, but there is value in the school system."
Gerald Fournier of Alpena asked local superintendents if any other options were considered before calling for a millage. His main concerns were if any options could help relieve taxpayers from high millage costs, he also questioned administration fees and if unions were approached during a millage forum.
"There is a lot to be done besides jumping into a millage. You're asking people in our country to give $4 million. I can tell you right now it's not in this county, people are hurting," Fournier said. "Eight-two percent of your budget is paid out in wages while people are leaving Northeast Michigan because there's no work here. I know there's no money floating around in the county, taking $4 million out of our county is not possible."
However, AMA ESD Superintendent Brian Wilmot said the money will not be taken for the county, but will stay and be used only in local schools.
"There's not a lot of bright spots for a turnaround," Wilmot said. "However, if we do get more from the state we could potentially reduce the ISD -wide levy, but at this point I don't see that happening."
John Milroy, an Alpena resident since 1974, said his mission is to inform the public about tax forms and how much residents are currently paying.
"Look at your tax form and check to see how much you're paying for operations," Milroy said. "People are going to notice they are paying $0 on operations and 6 mills that are going toward state education."
Registered voters of Alcona, Alpena, Atlanta, and Hillman are eligible to vote on the enhancement millage during the Feb. 26 election.
Emily Siegmon can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 358-5687.