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?

GP BOE Election 2014: The hijinks begins

Update to post: Since publication of this July 3rd entry, incumbents Jakubiec and Dindoffer did not file for re-election. Seven candidates did file for the three open seats. Technically, since current trustee Brian Summerfield was appointed, there are no incumbent candidates.

The Grosse Pointe Public Schools Board of Education enters the zany election period which has been thankfully reduced to just even years. Even in this very early stage, the melodrama has begun.

Three seats will be up this fall, those of Joan Dindoffer, Brian Summerfield and Tom Jakubiec. Current president Dindoffer has served for an incredible 17 years. Will she run again? Who knows, but the odds are against it. Summerfiield was appointed about a year and half ago and has already filed to run. Jakubiec has served for five years and has the oddest case. He announced his indeterminate resignation in December 2013, but subsequently recanted it. Will he refile? Who knows, perhaps him the least.

But things spiced up this week when former BOE member Ahmed Ismail announced his candidacy – with his usual flair. He said he had heard two “extremists” were going to file and that he could find no other interested candidates to oppose them. So on this basis Ismail has filed for re-election.

The drama prone latched onto this and claimed Ismail was calling Summerfield an extremist and otherwise using the filing as a rallying cry.

This is precisely the diversion that these kind of election suffer from, but they are inevitable. Did Ismail mean to call Summerfield an extremist? Who knows… and who cares. Let’s focus on the real issues in the 2014 BOE election. I see three significant issues facing the next configuration of the Board:

The teacher contract “Appendix C Formula Language”

In March, 2013 the Board and teacher bargaining unit (the GPEA) revised their contract and extended it to August 10, 2017. The most significant change in the contract was the “freezing” of Appendix C, the oft-discussed formula clause that adjusts employee compensation to the key financial drivers facing every Michigan public school district: state revenue, state mandated retirement rates, and employee salaries.

The revised contract suspended Appendix C until the day before the contract expires (August 9, 2017) at which time Appendix C returns to its original state. The suspension saved the teachers from further salary reductions and slowed the district’s return of Fund Equity to 10%.

I’ll be writing more about this as the election proceeds, but this is probably the number one issue facing all the candidates and their position on Appendix C should be made absolutely clear if their candidacy is to be taken seriously.

Tax Increase Position

This one binds closely to the issue above. With the last tech bond going down in flames before GPPSS voters, the question has loomed whether a revised issue will be put in front of voters. A big puzzle piece is the pending Wayne Country RESA millage that would cost GPPSS taxpayers $5 million to get back $3.17 million. As painful as this would be to taxpayers, it creates a huge budget cushion and would (probably) render the tech bond issue moot. Nonetheless, any candidate should need to make their vision on tax policy very clear in this election.

The Harwood Issue

The drama around Superintendent Harwood’s contract and related evaluations has been thick. The Board collectively has been mercurial on the issue, passing by various margins Dr. Harwood’s effectiveness rating yet extending his contract by only a year. This was a classic political punt, clearly not willing to extend it the normal three to five years but also not willing to end his contract. So now the ensuing configuration of the Board will be faced with this heavy issue almost immediately upon the induction of three new or re-elected members. So the candidates’ position on Harwood is incredibly relevant.

Grosse Pointe voters will be tempted to engage in the typical local politic hijinks. Gird yourselves for the social media drama and the series of red herrings that will be presented you. I encourage voters and candidates alike to focus on issues that really matter.



Proposed GPPSS budget stays the course

The Grosse Pointe Public Schools Board of Education will approve the 2014-15 budget tonight in a form largely unchanged from my May 18th analysis. Some highlights based on the various financial available on the district’s budget website:

  • Revenue is increasing by 0.5% most largely attributable to a $50 per pupil increase in state aid per pupil.
  • Expenditures increase by 1.5% ($155,000) due mainly to a $500,000 increase in expenditures for Computer Technology. (This is on top of the $1.1 million flowing to technology in the 2014-15 Sinking Fund budget).
  • Total employee compensation costs (salary and benefits) drops by 0.5% in total, however…
  • Average total compensation per employee increases by 4.3% due mainly to an increase in retirement investment by the district on the employees’ behalf. Total average retirement investment by the district per employee will be $15,727.
  • The aggregate drop in total compensation costs is attributable to a reduction of 8.5 full time equivalent staff (from 876.7 to 868.3). Of these 8.5, only 2.5 are teachers, the rest are various other staff categories.
  • The district will run a $2.25 million General Fund surplus, increasing on the $2.0 million surplus it ran in 2013-14.
  • Fund Equity will increase to $6.2 million or nearly 6.5% by the end of 2014-15 and is projected to breach 10% by the end of 2016-17.

Much continues to be made of the Fund Equity measure of a district’s financial health. I addressed this issue in depth in a June 2012 post on the topic that is worth revisiting.

The district’s budget narrative makes note, accurately, that “the more (fund) equity a district has, the less short term borrowing a district has to do for cash flow purposes.”  It’s worth noting the district reports total annual Interest Expense for 2014-15 of $220,000, or 0.2% of the total budget. This is a small price to pay for maintaining district standards through the financial downturn.

The district’s bond rating remains a strong AA- and the district is quick to note that they are “confident that the rate will increase as our fund equity increases.”

Time continues to show the financial strategy of leveraging a strong fund equity position to return structural balance to the district budget has worked well. Our employees remain very well compensated. The ratio of pupils to teachers is a mere 2% higher than it was 8 years ago. No schools were closed, no staff outsourced, no school of choice policy adopted.

In short, the 2014-15 budget is essentially a roll-over budget. It has very little variance to preceding years and applies increased state aid to technology.