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Schools in Michigan Will Close as Voters Reject Tax Increases

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Taylor, Mich.--Residents of this blue-collar Detroit suburb had a clear choice at the voting booth on Oct. 19: increase school taxes or allow the public schools to close.

They voted to close the schools.

In what is becoming a frightening trend in economically depressed Michigan, officials here announced after the vote that a lack of public financing will force schools to shut down by Nov. 13. With no state help in sight and no new election scheduled for more than a month, it appears unavoidable that Taylor's 16,000 students and 1,800 school employees will soon be idle.

"This is unfortunate for the community and tragic for the youngsters," Kenneth Walker, deputy superintendent of the school district, said shortly after residents voted for the fourth time in the past 10 months against a tax increase. This time, in fact, they rejected a renewal levy as well as one to provide additional funds to operate the system--in effect, reducing school taxes by 30 percent.

The vote, by a 53-47 percent margin, left Michigan's 10th-largest school district with a $16-million deficit in its $43-million 1981-1982 budget. State school systems are prohibited by law from operating in the red.

"Quite simply, we will lock the doors next month," said Superintendent Simon Kachaterian.

That will make Taylor the second Michigan school district to shut down this year for lack of funds. Last week, the 6,800-student Alpena district on the shores of Lake Huron closed its 12 schools after residents turned down a school millage renewal for the third time this year. Alpena residents will vote again on the tax renewal Oct. 30.

Similar crucial votes are scheduled in the 20,000-student Pontiac district and 6,000-student Romulus district, both of which will likely run out of cash by Christmas if tax proposals are rejected.

And there are more Michigan school districts walking the financial tightrope. "I fear that what happened in Taylor and Alpena could become a common occurrence throughout the state," says William Bedell, the superintendent of the Romulus system.

Taylor, although it suffers the additional problems of voter resentment of the system's management and a bitterly divided school board, also shares many of the other difficulties facing troubled districts.

Enrollment has declined 15 percent in the past four years, forcing the closing of four schools. Officials say the declining student population creates a decline in community support for education.

"People start losing interest in the schools once their children get out," says Mr. Walker.6"They don't want to pay the taxes anymore."

Taylor is also a city with high unemployment and a stagnant real-estate market. The school system has been unable to rely on rising real-estate values to keep property-tax revenues equal with inflation. As a result, officials have been forced to ask residents--many of whom are out of work--to increase their tax burden.

Michigan residents do not get to vote on their income tax or sales tax, but they do get to vote on school taxes. In Taylor, those taxes account for 46 percent of the total operating budget.

The Taylor situation did not develop overnight, but there is general agreement, even among critics, that the district began cutting back long ago.

This fall, all bus transportation to and from the schools was eliminated, along with all extracurricular activities in the secondary schools. In the elementary schools, physical education, music, art, and library services were eliminated. Nearly 200 teachers have been laid off in the past two years. And this year the opening of school was delayed one month.

'Trying to Destroy Schools'

"I've never seen a community turn on its school system as this one has," says the Rev. Robert Jansen of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Taylor. Mr. Jansen, a leader of the pro-tax campaign, says, "It's like people here are deliberately trying to destroy the schools to get at the school board."

Much of that sentiment stems from local politics. The city has been wracked by controversy for several years. Two high-ranking Taylor school officials were indicted last month on charges of selling two school buses and pocketing $3,000.

Mr. Kachaterian was fired in 1977 and his successor, Vincent Petitprent, was also forced out two years later. Mr. Kachaterian got his job back in 1980 through the state tenure commission, the same year a court ordered the district placed in receivership because of its fiscal troubles.

Currently, the district is out of receivership, an effort is underway to recall all seven school board members, and the state department of education is auditing Taylor's finances.

That is the extent of the state's involvement. Michigan law, while requiring 180 school days for each student, does not provide for assistance to bankrupt school systems. (In fact, no district has gone bankrupt since the Depression.)

Taylor, according to Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Phillip Runkel, "will have to fend for itself. We will help them in elections, we will lend bookkeeping and moral support, but we will not--and cannot--provide them with money."

State education aid--about 52 percent of Taylor's budget--has suffered serious setbacks in the past year. Michigan Governor William G. Milliken twice issued executive orders reducing aid to public schools and colleges by a total of 12 percent.

The state has eliminated both a program guaranteeing that state funds to individual districts would not drop even if enrollment declined and equalization aid for capital outlay. Compensatory-education aid for state-mandated programs was reduced from $250 to $200 per K-9 student. Special state aid for districts that reduced their tax rates also has been discontinued.

The losers in this three-cornered battle between the state, the schools, and the taxpayers are the students of Taylor, who will be out of school at least until the next tax election in mid-December.

Private schools in the area report no room to take in new students. Thirty-three of Wayne County's 36 public-school systems have refused to take in the displaced students. One said it would take Taylor students whose parorked in that particular city; another plans to accept students able to pay a whopping $3,400 tuition.

Detroit schools are considering taking some students for a $900 tuition fee, but it remains unclear how many new students Detroit can accommodate or how many students from the Taylor district--which is 94-percent white--will go to Detroit schools, which are 89-percent black.

The Michigan head count of students for state-aid purposes was taken Oct. 16. That means districts would not get increased funding even if they do accept Taylor students.

Those most likely to be affected are the 1,000 high-school seniors in the district, the majority of whom are already planning on attending college next year. Because of state attendance laws, their graduation is in jeopardy if Taylor schools remain shut for a prolonged period of time. Those who have already applied for college acceptance are in a quandary.

"I'm planning to go to the University of Michigan, and I know I will get in, but this figures to throw everything up in the air," said Jane Sobieraj, 17, a senior at Taylor Center High School.

The university, which usually accepts about 50 Taylor seniors per year, says it will not take any students without a state-certified diploma. Other schools--such as Michigan State University, and Eastern Michigan University--are considering accepting students from Taylor and Alpena and allowing them to earn their high-school diplomas by taking college courses.

"We just can't let these kids stay out in the cold because their parents don't want to pay school taxes," said Don Kajcienski, admissions director at Eastern Michigan University. "But this is not a situation we've ever had to deal with before."

Unfortunately, it appears to be a situation everyone in Michigan may have to learn to deal with in the near future.

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