Is it a surprise that school boards often struggle to find willing entrants to the arenas of local politics? A good look at how Michigan funds public schools and the mechanics of local school district budgets can help diagnose the problem.
Before the passage of Proposal A in the mid-1990s, local school boards held full control of almost all operating and economic issues. They could go to voters at any time to seek millage increases. If finances became tight, or employee contracts expanded, school boards put it to the voters.
Property-tax levy proposals were common and mostly approved. That was the good news. The bad news was that Michigan property taxes exceeded the national average by 34 percent. Aside from a tax climate that was proving non-competitive, spending disparities among school districts worsened. Wealthy districts’ per-pupil spending exceeded poor districts’ by as much as three-to-one.
What would happen in a poor community when voters had enough? We found out in 1993 in Kalkaska. That district-wide shutdown in the middle of the school year set Proposal A’s passage into motion. Prop A aimed to solve these problems.
Prop A took away the option of raising taxes locally. The state now sets per-pupil funding. This allowed it to, over time, address spending disparities. We see evidence even in this year’s School Aid Fund proposal; it raises per-pupil revenue for lower-revenue districts by $120, and $60 for higher-revenue districts.