Voters in Michigan Approve Spending At Current Levels
Detroit--Michigan voters gave their schools a vote of confidence last week, but were hesitant to dip further into their pockets when asked to raise property taxes.
Residents in about two-thirds of the state's 570 school districts went to the polls to decide tax levels for the 1982-83 academic year. In 80 percent of the districts holding referendums, they approved proposals to maintain school spending at its 1981-82 level.
But in 75 percent of the 160 districts that also asked for tax hikes, voters said "no."
"We have to be pleased," said Phillip E. Runkel, state superintendent of public instruction. "Despite Michigan's crushing economic problems, most voters are willing to pay what is needed to support their school systems."
Michigan currently has a 14.3-percent unemployment rate, the highest in the nation. Beyond that, many officials were worried that the legislature's recent decision to increase the state income tax would produce a backlash among voters, hurting school districts' chances of passing tax proposals last week.
Some districts did suffer. In Taylor and Romulus, two blue-collar suburbs of Detroit, residents rejected tax renewals, leaving the districts with far less money than they had this past year. Officials in those districts said the rejections could result in shortened school years or half-day sessions starting next fall.
Voters in the 19,000-student Pontiac district turned down the school board's request to borrow $6 million for varsity athletics next year. The vote means that Pontiac high schools--traditionally sports powerhouses in Michigan--will be without sports for the second straight year.
Taylor, Romulus, and Pontiac all came precipitously close to closing down schools during the 1981-82 year because of financial problems. Although each district can call for more tax elections between now and the start of the next school year, last week's election results appear to signal a continuation of anti-tax sentiment in those districts.
"Maybe after teacher contracts are settled, the millage will go through," said Sybil Mazor, a member of the Pontiac school board. "At least that's what I'm hoping."
In Romulus, the rejection of a tax renewal left the 6,000-student district with a $4-million deficit in next year's $19-million budget. Superintendent William Bedell said that the defeat might force schools to close for several months next fall.
"I know a lot of people out there who believe in education," he said. "But if they're not unemployed, they are underemployed, and there is almost a hysteria about property taxes that makes it difficult to get a millage through."
In a related matter, state school officials approved a $20-million school-aid advance for Detroit and $4 million for nine other cash-strapped districts facing payless paydays. Mr. Runkel said the aid payments will be made this week under a delayed-payment plan the state implemented because of its own money problems. The districts proved they had cash-flow problems and could not meet their payrolls without prompt state aid, Mr. Runkel said.