Traverse City voters exercised their power at the polls in November to decide the fate of two key community initiatives – a proposed bond increase for Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) and an authorization to potentially transfer park land to the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to widen Division Street. A month later, The Ticker checked in to see how election results have impacted both high-profile projects.
“The feedback I've received since the election is that the sticking point was the auditorium,” says TCAPS board president Kelly Hall, of the district's failed request for a $100 million tax increase from voters. The proposed mill bond levy increase – from 3.1 up to potentially 3.9 – would have covered costs for renovations at four elementary schools, technology and infrastructure needs, and – most contentiously – a new 1200-seat performing arts auditorium at Central High School.
“The current auditorium is at its breaking point,” explains Hall of the board's decision to include the request in the bond proposal. “The mics are breaking, the seats are horrible. There is both a capacity and a curricular need for a new auditorium in the district. But losing 60-40 (approximately 25,000 to 18,000 votes) showed voters didn't agree with us.”
Hall and the rest of the board are now wrestling with how to prioritize and fund a list of urgent improvement projects since voters denied the bond request. Money that was anticipated to come with the mill increase may now come out of TCAPS' general fund, “diminishing what we can spend in the classroom on teaching and learning,” according to Hall. Some projects, like the auditorium and a renovation of Central Grade School, are now completely off the table.
Paul Soma, chief financial officer at TCAPS, says replacing the roof at Glenn Loomis is the most pressing task facing the district. "The roof literally is at risk of complete failure," he says, noting that the fix will come next summer at a cost of $450,000 - funds that won't be recoverable once the entire facility is eventually renovated.
Soma adds that video security systems also need to be installed at Glenn Loomis as well as Eastern and Interlochen elementary schools, another project with a $450,000 price tag. Both Hall and board member Megan Crandall called the improvements “band-aid” solutions, short-term fixes instead of the hoped-for complete renovations that would've been made possible by the bond passage.
In the long-term, board members expressed consensus that the district will likely need to present another bond increase request to the community. At a TCAPS board retreat next week, members will analyze election results to begin determining what such a proposal could look like.
“I personally would be opposed to coming back to the community with the exact same proposal,” says Hall. “I don't believe this election was a vote of no confidence in the district itself – rather, people had concerns about certain aspects and the overall amount requested.”
Voters who helped pass a proposal authorizing the transfer of park land to widen Division Street by a 59 percent majority might be surprised to learn they're one percent shy of a guaranteed go-ahead on the project.
Local attorney Grant Parsons, a vocal opponent of the proposal, says Section 128 of the city's charter requires a supermajority vote to dispose of parkland – 3/5, or 60 percent. He plans to challenge the vote in court – though since he is not a city resident, the challenge will have to be filed on behalf of a plaintiff who resides in city limits.
City attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht disputes Parsons' interpretation of the charter. In an October 11 letter to the city commission, she noted that the three-fifths requirement originated in the Home Rule Cities Act (HRCA). In 1966, that provision was amended to require a simple majority rather than a supermajority vote. While Parsons disagrees that the amendment applies to votes on parkland, he says if his challenge fails in court he may work to eventually get a referendum on the ballot to ensure future parkland votes require a supermajority approval.
“Parkland is our legacy in Traverse City,” says Parsons. “Even if you're talking about unconventional parkland, like that along Division, you degrade it by whittling it away. We have supermajority votes for our most important issues in this country...I believe disposing of parkland should be one of them.”