How school districts sell funding projects across Michigan

Next Tuesday, voters across 29 Michigan school districts will decide whether they want to support requests for more than $1 billion in new construction and athletic field improvements, and purchases like technology and school buses.

If past performance is any indicator, only half those requests will pass.

What separates winners from losers? A Bridge review of 20 years of bond issues shows funding requests in wealthier districts have a better chance of passing. But other, less obvious factors are also at play: the current economy, perceived need and how effectively, and honestly, districts communicate the value of the project to their communities.

For school districts, bond issues can be fraught with difficulty: convincing voters to pay more during a slow economic recovery for building renovations, new technology or ball fields. Over the last 20 years, the batting average of bond requests is pretty even: about 51 percent of nearly 1,600 bond issues studied gained voter support, a Bridge analysis found.

Consider: Out of more than 4.2 million votes cast since 1995, the ‘yays’ exceed the ‘nays’ by just over 8,800.

Passing a bond issue, said Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, “is an art form.” There is no shortage of blueprints for success.

A district has to make sure it can defend the request and clearly communicate the necessity of the additional money. Taxpayers don’t like to be fooled.

“You hope you’re not overshooting what they told you they wanted,” Wotruba said.

On Tuesday, the requests vary from $1.4 million to improve the football and track stadium in Adrian to $134.5 million that would allow Warren Consolidated Schools to renovate multiple schools, upgrade athletic fields and buy technology and school buses.

Over the years, the passage rate has fluctuated wildly. More bond issues failed than passed from 1996 to 2008; the worst year was 2003, as Michigan began its economic descent. Just over a third of the 70 bond issues passed. Paradoxically, one of the best years was 2009 when the jobless rate in Michigan first hit double digits.

(Bridge only reviewed ballot measures involving districts that sought more favorable credit terms under a program of the state Department of Treasury, which allows districts to obtain lower borrowing costs. Some wealthier districts with stronger bond ratings have chosen not to seek state qualification, and are not included in this analysis.)

Most successful districts

DistrictTotal approvedSuccessful requests
Detroit City School District$500,540,0001
Chippewa Valley Schools$445,655,0004
Utica Community Schools$383,500,0003
L'Anse Creuse Public Schools$378,165,0005
Troy School District$315,775,0003
Walled Lake Consolidated Schools$301,325,0006
Rochester Community School District$272,295,0003
Waterford School District$260,000,0003
Dearborn City School District$226,370,0003
West Ottawa Public School District$216,535,0005

Least successful districts*

DistrictFailedPassedPassage rate
Galesburg-Augusta Community Schools1019.1
White Pigeon Community Schools1019.1
Bangor Public Schools (Van Buren)9218.2
Southgate Community School District8220
Lakewood Public Schools8220
Northwest Community Schools8220
Morrice Area Schools11321.4
Charlotte Public Schools9743.8
Allendale Public School District5654.5
Montague Area Public Schools5654.5

* Minimum of 10 bond issues since 1996

Source: Michigan Treasury Department's School bond election results.

Geographically, voters in some counties are more supportive than in others. Oakland County, the state’s wealthiest, has seen 80 percent of the 69 requests pass since 1996. Wotruba noted that wealthier districts have inherent advantages: A larger tax base means millage rates are smaller. But Wotruba also speculated that more educated voters may be more likely to back education efforts.

“In some ways they are valuing what’s needed in the pipeline for the job market,” he said.

East Grand Rapids, another of the state’s most educated and wealthiest districts, has passed eight of nine bond issues; while Troy, Rochester and Walled Lake have each approved multiple bond issues worth more than $200 million over the years. All are more affluent districts.

Another vote next week, in west Michigan, is also of note: In the small, 1,000-student Galesburg-Augusta district east of Kalamazoo district leaders are asking voters to extend an existing bond issue to cover more than $10 million in renovations and remodeling, along with technology for its three buildings.

It’s noteworthy because the district has had such trouble convincing voters in the past: Of 11 votes since 1996, only one, in 2000, passed. Since then, seven requests have failed, including one last November.

That proposal was similar to the one facing voters next week, save one obvious difference: The November proposal called for multi-million dollar improvements to the district’s athletics fields, raising the amount requested to $14 million. After that defeat, the district removed athletic field money, reducing the total request to $10 million.

“We found the biggest polarizing factor was the athletic fields,” said Dania Bazzi, the district superintendent.

This time, the district also brought in pollsters from Lansing who took the temperature of district voters. Although the district said it has always worked with the community, “this time we sought out their thoughts even more,” Bazzi said. (Update: The bond issue passed 777 to 682)

Promoting a successful bond issue often involves haggling, then scaling back. It’s quite common for bond issues to come in pairs – first one fails, then it shrinks and then the voters agree, Wotruba said.

“Every voter thinks the first bond issue is one that can be pared down,” Wotruba said. “But sometimes that isn’t the case.”

In Michigan, school districts can only raise bond money for capital improvements, such as new facilities, athletic field upgrades or school bus purchases. They cannot raise local bond money for teacher salaries or classroom operations.

For school boards to find success, they have to work with the community, said Dave Campbell, a former superintendent of Olivet schools who is now superintendent of the Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency.

“Ultimately, it really comes down to communication,” said Campbell, who oversaw three successful bond issues in 2002 and 2008 in Olivet.

Campbell’s hard-earned suggestion: If ballot language is wordy and confusing, break it down into a simple, clear message that anyone can understand. “Explain it in English,” he said.

School advocates say this kind of communication was threatened by passage of legislation last December that barred local officials from lobbying for issues involving tax dollars. Schools and other local officials, however, interpreted the law as a backdoor effort to discourage local communities from providing even basic, factual information to residents about a ballot or millage issue in the critical months before a vote.

After local officials howled about the measure, the legislature sought to change it almost immediately. School leaders filed a federal lawsuit, and a federal judge put a temporary halt on the law in February, allowing districts in March and in the upcoming vote to proceed as before.

Tell them ‘why’

Districts must make sure they are telling voters what’s at stake, why it’s needed and why they should raise their taxes, Campbell said.

“Why are we asking for this? Why are we asking for a technology wing?” Campbell said, recalling what a board and superintendent must always keep in mind.

“You have to answer the ‘why’ question. Which is why that legislation (regarding communication) was so problematic.”

If a district fails to make its point in casual meetings and in sessions before churches, the local business community and the like, anti-tax sentiment can win out. “Sometimes bond issues can sink more on emotion than the facts,” Campbell said.

In Galesburg-Augusta, Bazzi’s district is trying to overcome any resentment. The bond issue is billed as “zero millage,” meaning the district’s bond rate won’t change. But that doesn’t mean it’s free money: In its brochure the district makes it clear that if it fails, tax rates will go down.

It’s all part of being transparent, Bazzi said.

“We understand these are difficult economic times,” she said. “But at the same time, I have to advocate for the students of Galesburg-Augusta.”

On Tuesday, we’ll find out if voters agree.

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Thu, 04/28/2016 - 10:28am
The Lansing school district is advertising like crazy to pass a $120 million bond proposal, constant ads on TV featuring school board people and kids talking about how great the programs in the Lansing district are. They even brought in Magic Johnson for TV commercials and a pep rally with Magic along with the music group Earth Wind and Fire. They are going all out.
Thu, 04/28/2016 - 10:34am
The most unfair tax of all is any that is tied to the millage rate of a property when the property is a non-homestead property. The owner does not get to vote, in all probability uses none or very little of the service provided by the extra millage, and because of the non-homestead classification, already pays an extra 18 mils on the property tax. It would be far better to have these requests be a non-ad-valorem tax where every property pays the same amount.
Sat, 04/30/2016 - 5:01pm
Think about this: "The owner (of non-homestead property)... in all probability uses none or very little of the service provided..." I cannot be positive, but I don't think you mean to say those "owners" do not in any way benefit by the K-12 public school services provided to their local community.
Mon, 05/02/2016 - 6:03pm
Yes, these owners of non-homesteaded property have already paid taxes to support everything on their homesteaded property. Are you asking them to pay twice when they have no voting rights to pass or deny any of these millages? Either give them the right to vote when it affects their taxes, or better yet, make these millages non-ad-valorem tax where every property owner pays the same amount instead of having the amount paid be dependent on the value of their non-homestead property. I'll bet a lot of these millages would not be as popular if everyone had to ante up an equal amount.
Thu, 04/28/2016 - 4:48pm
Washtenaw County is trying a new tactic. They want to roughly double the existing Special Education millage, whioch was renewed ~ 2 years ago by a reasonable margin.There is a very heavy campaign in local media and with large color postcards to parents of current students, covered with adorable but clearly seriously impaired children doing vaguely educational or athletic things. I recognize one of the pictures from Special Olympics, which gets ZERO funding from any Washtenaw school district, aside from some release time for adapted PE teachers to serve as coaches. Those activities are sustained by volunteer donors, workers and parents, not by the school system. Nice work, WISD. What a couple of the school district presenters have been forced to admit under persistent questioning is that this millage increase will not result in any additional benefits, services or enhanced programs for the students who receive special educations services. Let me say that again. There will be absolutely NO additional benefit to any special education student if the millage passes. Instead, the extra $24 million to be collected during the 2016-17 school year will "relieve the burden" on multiple school district's General Fund accounts, so the school districts can afford to give teachers a bigger raise. Or expand the new programs to bring tuition-paying F-1 visa students from China, for which the school districts will ALSO claim state per-pupil aid.
Michael Stephens
Sun, 05/01/2016 - 11:56am
I find it preposterous and fiscally irresponsible to recommend financing things such as technology, carpeting, and buses over a 25 year period when the useful lifespan of these items is 10 to 15 years at best. There is a reason you can't finance a new car for 10 years, but you can finance a house for 30....usable life.