Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Vote "No" on February 28 School Bond Proposal

[Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2012 edition of Ferndale Friends] 

Regardless the virtues proposed for school bond proposals, each must be critically examined to determine if the fanfare and marketing that precede them isn’t intended to distract voters from serious questions school districts would rather not discuss.

Such is the case with this February’s ballot question asking Ferndale School District voters for  $23 million and another 10 years’ property tax that won’t be paid off until 2033.

Some of the questions the district doesn’t want to discuss, and I have the emails from the Superintendent, Director of Public Relations, and Executive Director of Curriculum Instruction to prove it include:

  • Why won’t they provide per-building expenses and revenue so residents may consider board policies, budget, maintenance, or even new construction?
  • Why haven’t they appraised district buildings to verify if the $53 million in assets isn’t actually worth much less than that?
  • What does it say for the district when 46% (nearly half) of its students don’t live in the district (1205 from Detroit) and nearly one-third of in-district students don’t attend Ferndale public schools?
  • What would be the best strategy be going forward if the board and voters focused on the 2096 district students remaining?
  • How will Ferndale Schools ever positively impact property values when the schools perform poorly on standardized tests, due in-part to its out-of-district students?
  • Is borrowing $23 million for repairs to facilities not likely worth the $53 million the district has on the books the best use of taxpayer money for 2096 students?
  • Why should the board obligate taxpayers to a $23 million bond when area property values barely cover $13 million?
By the numbers, the ballot question deserves a resounding no-vote from taxpayers.  But more important is what taxpayers deserved from the district.

For instance, taxpayers deserve to know which schools generate revenue and which do not, and as importantly, they need to know how much the district profits from schools-in-the-black vs how much it loses on schools-in-the-red.  Facts like this would help residents better weigh if the district’s commitment to University High and Taft are truly in the interest of education or in the interest of profits.  It would help residents better understand why the school district turns a deaf ear to residents complaining of vandalism, reckless driving, loitering, and drug use near Taft.

One of the arguments in-favor of the passing the bond is that an investment in schools is sure to increase property values.  If there was indeed a direct relationship between spending on buildings and property values residents should ask why stop at $23 million?

The more direct relationship is between academic performance and property values.  Fair or not, most potential home buyers purchase school districts, not houses.  Long before they drive-by Ferndale’s tree-lined streets they’ll look at MEAP and ACT scores to see if its worth $3.50/gallon to make the trip.  

Lastly (not really, but there’s a word limit in these articles), as the bond obligates taxpayers until 2033 the district ought to provide a plan with enrollment and maintenance expenses projected at least 10-years into the future.  And as Ferndale’s population loss has been primarily in the under-18 age group since the 1970 census and with increasing numbers of parents choosing to send their children to other districts, the district had better devise a plan with more realistic expectations than they used for 1995’s $47 million bond, some of which was spent on buildings that were closed in 2002’s consolidation.

District taxpayers, residents, and parents deserve a 10-year plan, and a superintendent making over $200,000/year for a less-than-six-square-mile district should be capable of delivering it.

So until these questions can be answered in writing, with an appraisal of the district’s assets, a budget showing per-school revenues and expenses, and a plan to address our schools’ academic performance, taxpayers should vote no and not give the benefit of the doubt to either the board or an administration that doesn’t give the benefit of transparency to its taxpayers.

2010 MEAP, ACT, and MME data from the State Department of Education

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