School board election 2014 update

Grosse Pointe North High School

Grosse Pointe North High School

Two weeks ago I posted about the emergence of a slate of three candidates among the seven vying for the three open seats in the upcoming Grosse Pointe Public Schools Board of Education election.

The partnership of Margaret Weertz, Jake Howlett, and Brian Summerfield was further cemented this week when each announced they had been endorsed by the Grosse Pointe Education Association (GPEA), which is the local teachers union.

In the past when the GPEA has endorsed candidates, they have shared a questionnaire or some other rationale for their decision. Without that or really any other substantial announcement for the affiliation of this slate, we remain left wondering why.

This void has created more space for the silliest of public bickering between both sides of the non-party aisles on the school board as the unofficial spokespeople for each argued via the media about the presence or lack of “divisiveness” on the board.

That is an article for another day, but for now the issue facing the electorate remains the same: On what basis will we ever know why these three chose one another and what was it about the other candidates (Tara Burdick, Guy Gehlert, Ahmed Ismail and Cynthia Sohn) that they weren’t part of their team? If it is only that they like each other, I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it.

The lack of an answer to this is giving rise to speculation, a flicker that was stoked further by the GPEA endorsement, that the slate of three is “hand picked” by the district and administration. That is a far-fetched theory, but there is enough evidence to support that the district establishment likes what it sees out of the slate of three. Controversy is also rising because so many district employees, including at least three highly placed district administrators, have the trio of Howlett, Summerfield, and Weertz signs on their lawns.

As citizens of course these employees have every right to voice an opinion, but being that they are insiders, you have to wonder why.

Meanwhile in a letter to the Grosse Pointe News, candidate Burdick fired some strong shots across the bow of the establishment. She took dead aim on the failed tech bond calling it “flawed.” She protested against the employee contract formula clause by saying that district staff “should not be expected to bail out our district and restore its financial health.” She took the incumbent board to task, without naming Summerfield, for giving Superintendent Harwood a bonus when others took pay cuts. (I wrote about that back in June, 2013.)

The letter was filled with a slew of positions and promises that will be hard to reconcile as a practical matter, but at least it was substantive. The voters need more of that. The issues she raised really are the three key issues in this election: the Harwood issue, the tech bond issue, and the teacher contract index clause issue.

As of this writing the only positions known on these are Burdick’s from above and that Summerfield was a tech bond advocate and has voted to retain and bonus Harwood. Beyond that we know the GPEA and tech bond committee leadership all endorse Howlett, Weertz and Summerfield. And even in that we have only innuendo. Where do the other candidates stand on these issues?

Perhaps the October 7th League of Women Voters forum is one option, but with seven candidates the answers will be short and the risk of ambiguity is high. In the social media era, we shouldn’t have this problem. As of right now, however, we do. It would be refreshing to see any of the candidates host their own Google Hangout style Q and A session.

I’ll be publishing what has become an ambitious ten year history of the GPPSS Board of Education sometime over the next couple of weeks. I started to give background on the key issues in this election and found that the history is so relevant and necessary to understanding that I felt I needed to get this done. So stay tuned. It’s been a wild ten years!

Until then, I encourage everyone to really press the candidates for answers to these positional issues. They matter far more than personalities and personal politics.

Seeing millages in context

Benchmark Millage Rates

For a simple start, I wholeheartedly endorse the renewal of both the Hold Harmless millage and the Sinking Fund.

As a word of caution, the community – and the administration and Board of Education – ought not to take these millages for granted.

The attempt at such a large tech bond was evidence that this historically generous community support was indeed taken for granted by too many.

Let’s keep things in perspective. The chart above shows the current millage rates of Grosse Pointe Public Schools in comparison to benchmark districts.

The rarity of the Hold Harmless mills is evident. Very few, less than 10% of Michigan school districts, can levy a Hold Harmless millage. The impact on this unique revenue source is massive and reflected in more detail in the Financial Benchmarking report, embedded here.

Brendan Walsh_Financial Benchmark Report_2013 by Brendan Walsh

The report itself contains much of any commentary I might add here, but suffice it to say GPPSS has a huge economic advantage by virtue of the Hold Harmless millage. At issue then becomes how we choose to spend that money, which is why I present the benchmark data in terms of proportional spend by category.

Right now, the district budget is so grooved by the Hold Harmless revenue that undoing that would be disastrous. The loss of the Sinking Fund would hurt badly, but our now dependence on its renewal is yet another cautionary tale.

The Sinking Fund tax levy has now been levied for ten years. The introduction of the Sinking Fund served as an early warning sign of the financial distress that was to come. It was packaged back in 2004 as a temporary response to the budget contraction that the recently spiraling Michigan foretold. With this renewal, should voters approve, the Sinking Fund can be seen as a permanent financial response.

For all the talk of the upkeep our buildings needed ten years ago – and still do now – we should all remember that those repairs were supported out of the General Fund before the Sinking Fund came along. What the passage of the Sinking Fund did was basically relieve pressure on the General Fund – and that money flowed in accordance with the allocations you see in the benchmark report.

This is why the tech bond, as presented to the community, was so poorly conceived. But I’ve treated that topic enough. The parallel has to be drawn, however.

These millages need to be renewed now, at worst, because we are dependent upon them. But the 25% figure being used to promote their renewals must be seen less in terms of the context for the local budget and more in terms that it represents a 25% revenue advantage the district has long had over 95% of Michigan public schools.

The question is what have we done, and what will we do, to benefit from that revenue advantage?

Campaign patterns emerge

SB Slate

School Board candidates Summerfield, Weertz, and Howlett at a joint campaigning event flanked by supporter Allison Baker (left).

Like the sprouting campaign lawn signs, developments are emerging in the 2014 Grosse Pointe Public School System Board of Education election.

In traditional elections party affiliation alone largely defines the candidates. Alternatively, candidates’ positions on issues well-known to the electorate inform voters.

School board elections are not only non-partisan. They also typically lack the well-known issues that allow candidates to distinguish themselves from one another. This is why the residency issue is often interjected into G.P. school board elections. A position on that issue allows candidates to categorize themselves conveniently for the voters.

With seven weeks until the election, the residency issue has yet to surface, but no issue really has that helps to define the seven candidates. But three of them know enough of each other to have decided to campaign together.

Both in constellations of lawn signs, letters to local papers, campaign events and social media postings, candidates Jake Howlett, Brian Summerfield, and Margaret Weertz are associating themselves with each other. It is not plainly evident why these three have chosen to do so and not the others among Tara Burdick, Guy Gehlert, Ahmed Ismail and Cynthia Sohn.

Slates and affiliations are nothing new in school board elections nor is there anything nefarious about them. In 1996 candidates Steve Matthews and Jack Ryan affiliated and rode to victory as a tandem. More recently in 2008, Judy Gafa and Darryl Miller campaigned together against a similarly affiliated Ahmed Ismail and Chris Cornwall. Voters opted to split both tickets, electing Gafa and Ismail.

These two former political rivals now may be facing off again as social media posts indicate Gafa (as well as fellow trustee Dan Roeske) favors the Howlett, Summerfield, and Weertz trio while Ismail seeks his own seat.

The public would do well to try to understand the basis of these affiliations and the candidates would do equally well to share why they have chosen to do so.

As I have written before, three issues should dominate voter analysis of this election: positions on a tech bond, on the renewal or dismissal of current superintendent Tom Harwood, and stance on GPPSS employee contract Appendix C. (UPDATE: Declining enrollment is really the fourth key issue. At the meeting tonight, the Board will receive an enrollment update that shows 107  fewer general education students than expected and 35 more special education students than expected. This is easily a $1 million plus negative effect on the 2014-15 budget.)

We do know that Gafa, Roeske and Summerfield were all major tech bond supporters, as are some of the outspoken Howlett, Summerfield and Weertz supporters – some of whom chaired the tech bond support committee. Whether stated outright, tech bond and tax increases in general are bound to be a significant determining factor in this election.

As for the Harwood issue, Gafa, Roeske and Summerfield have all voted publicly to renew or even authorize bonus compensation for the superintendent while at least Ismail has been publicly critical of him (after previously supporting him).

Positions on Appendix C, the oft-discussed “formula clause” that bound employee compensation to fund equity levels, will be harder to come by without direct questioning of the candidates. I’ll be publishing more background on this issue in the coming weeks to promote dialog on the topic.

Social media has emerged as a legitimate news source for the school board election, breaking the lock the candidate forum (scheduled for October 7) has long had as one of the only ways for voters to learn about the candidates. A majority of the seven candidates have Facebook and/or web pages.

We’ll see if this proves to be a reliable information stream as voters seek to learn more about the candidates and how they view themselves differently from the others.

But we now know that among themselves, they do indeed view each other differently. Now we ought to learn why.

Sinking sinking fund… and enrollment

As a follow up to my post regarding the August 5th Wayne County Enhancement Millage and its effect on the Sinking Fund vote, here is a report issued by the Grosse Pointe Public School System administration cross referencing the projected revenues of the Sinking Fund with that of the Wayne County Enhancement millage.

GPPSS Millage Projection Comparison by Brendan Walsh

GPPPSS 389Not a great deal of surprise here, with one exception.

The Enhancement millage deliver a tax revenue yield increase of about $300,000 over the Sinking Fund, but that extra $300,000 would cost GPPSS taxpayers about $2.6 million, or about the equivalent of 1 mill.

Since the Board of Education is poised to not seek renewal of the Sinking Fund if the Enhancement Millage passes, this basically means that taxes will increase by 1 mill and aggregate revenue will (on a like for like basis) will increase just 0.03%. As covered before, the Enhancement Millage revenue is not constricted the way to Sinking Fund revenue is, so there would be other benefits, but certainly not enough to justify a full mill.

No real news in all that. The public voices, including the Board’s and a majority of the seven November Board of Education candidates oppose the Enhancement Millage and would not seek Sinking Fund renewal if the Enhancement Millage is successful.

What is more newsworthy in the above district report is the projected loss of 250 more students over the next 6 years. That’s a projection of the loss of about $2.5 million. This continues the pattern of declining enrollment that the district has seen now for the last ten years. I highlighted that specifically in my most recently published Financial Benchmark Report.

I’ve talked in great detail about the impact of declining enrollment in the past. This, too, is a great topic of discussion as we enter the election season. With almost all district revenues tied to student enrollment, this is a major issue. I encourage the community to make this a discussion topic during this election cycle.


Enhancement millage could sink GPPSS Sinking Fund

The Board of Education Building at 389 St. Clair

The Board of Education Building at 389 St. Clair

The Grosse Pointe Public Schools’ Board of Education is prudently pausing the Sinking Fund millage approval, but the plot will get much thicker pending the August 5th Wayne County enhancement millage results.

This November’s election is a big one for the Board and Grosse Pointe district in general. Not only will three of seven Board of Education seats be up for election, so will nearly a quarter of all the district’s annual revenues – mainly in the form of the district’s uniquely valuable (8 mill) Hold Harmless tax levy.

My blog entries on the recently failed tech bond proposal addressed GPPSS tax policy, but in broad strokes the district levies just over 10 mills locally, about double the statewide local district average. When factoring GPPSS’ much higher than average homestead property tax base, each of our mills is worth 6 times above the state average.

Against this backdrop, the Board will inevitably endorse renewal of the Hold Harmless millage. The rest of the 10 Homestead mills is comprised of the Debt Millage and the Sinking Fund.

The August 5th Wayne County enhancement millage is a new wrinkle. Locally the GPPSS Board of Education (this past April) voted unanimously to oppose placing the 2 mill, 6 year tax increase on the ballot, but since other Wayne County districts representing a majority of students approved the language, the issue will be decided by voters in a county-wide vote.

The GPPSS Board opposed it, most likely, since it would cost Grosse Pointe Public School taxpayers about $5 million and return $3.2 million annually. GPPSS is one of twelve Wayne County districts that would get back less than what they would contribute (due to the formula used to distribute the funds by student enrollment, not by tax base.)

For reference, the GPPSS Sinking Fund yields about $2.5 million annually and is limited by law for certain uses. The enhancement millage is worth more not only in dollars, but in flexibility. The enhancement millage does not have the restrictions of the Sinking Fund. It could be used just as the Sinking Fund is today, but also more broadly for technology or even employee salaries and benefits.

Locally the Sinking Fund is also due for renewal, but the Board has chosen to wait on the outcome of the Wayne County enhancement millage before deciding whether to place the Sinking Fund renewal back on the ballot, at least according to this official district document.

This does not necessarily mean that if the enhancement millage passes that the GPPSS Board will not seek Sinking Fund renewal. With a ballot language deadline of August 11th, the Board would officially decide that question at their August 7th meeting.

Should the Wayne County millage pass, this is a political hot potato. Certainly loud factions of the GPPSS community would gladly welcome a new $3.2 million revenue stream on top of the Sinking Fund’s $2.5 million. But even placing the question on the November ballot could threaten passage of the Hold Harmless millage.

For politically engaged readers, all this represents a great question to pose to the seven declared Board of Education candidates, obviously aside from our currently elected members. What would they do in this scenario?