Esky board continues millage talk

ESCANABA — The Escanaba Area Schools Board of Education set the stage Monday for a series of voter decisions including who will be on the board after the November election — and for how long — and how voters would react to a sinking fund proposal being introduced for a second time.

Unlike a bond proposal, which apply taxpayer money only to a specific project approved by voters, a sinking fund creates a millage-funded pool of money that districts can use for various projects that fall under specific guidelines. These guidelines allow the fund to pay for things like technology upgrades, facility improvements, or building repairs, but prohibit the money from being used to pay for employee salaries or benefits, or to be used to purchase teaching supplies, textbooks, or pay for bussing.

Because funding is collected rather than borrowed and then paid back, as with bonds, there is no debt or interest associated with sinking funds, and the district does not need to get voter permission to use the fund for any project after the sinking fund has been established. While this makes a sinking fund a more flexible option for paying for projects, sinking funds are also highly regulated. The fund must be held separately from other district funds and receive an independent audit annually to ensure compliance with the law.

In May, the district put the issue of creating a sinking fund on the ballot, but voters balked at the proposal, which asked taxpayers for 2.2 mills ($2.20 per $1,000 of taxable value on real property) levied for a period of five years. During Monday’s meeting, board members discussed reintroducing the sinking fund proposal in November, but at a reduced millage rate and for a shorter period.

“I would like to see us go for it again in November, and I would like like to suggest that we go a more moderate route … 1.8 mills for like four years, I think it would be reasonable to ask and we give the voting public the message that we understand that this is a big thing and that they felt it was perhaps too much for too long the first time around,” said Board Vice President Kathy Jensen.

Escanaba Area Schools Superintendent Coby Fletcher told the board there were three options for how to structure a future proposal: a conservative approach, where only enough money would be raised to meet the district’s most pressing needs; a middle-ground approach, where pressing needs would be met and a portion of the funding could be saved for unforeseen needs, such as failed boilers or roof damage; or an approach where voters would be asked for more money, which could be used to address more of the district’s issues and still have money left over in reserve for unforeseen events.

Board members were hesitant to suggest going to a larger millage amount based on feedback from the community.

“It’s something we have to try, it’s something we need, and I think we deserve to give the public one more shot at it, but like I said, I think we can compromise a little bit with that number,” said Board Trustee Bob LaFave.

While the board did not make any decisions on the future of the millage proposal — pushing the issue to an action item on the agenda for next month’s school board meeting — the board did briefly discuss which voters needed to be reached if the proposal returned to the ballot.

“I would like to see us hit the absentee voters real hard this year. Some of the absentee people that I talked to were confused and they really didn’t know from here to there,” said Board Treasurer James Hermans.

While Fletcher noted the school board itself could not produce materials supporting the proposal to give to absentee voters, he did suggest that a citizen committee would be able to approach those voters and create materials.

“I think in terms of strategy if the board opts to move forward with putting the sinking fund to another vote in November, we’ve talked about taking the more aggressive approach, which would mean we would go with taking more of a citizen committee route, which allows us to more easily reach those people and provide us those materials,” he said.

In other business, the board looked at the term length for board members. Currently, half the board is serving four-year terms while the other half is serving six-year terms. While there is some confusion on how both of the term lengths came to be on the ballot during the last election, it is believed to be the result of the board attempting to transition to a six-year term from a four-year term.

However, the district recently became aware that by law the board must adopt a single term length. Adopting a six-year term could produce more dedicated candidates and ultimately lead to a more experienced board, but four-year terms may be more appealing to inexperienced candidates and lead to a larger pool of potential board members.

The board will determine which term length to adopt at the July board meeting, but none of the currently seated board members will have their term lengths changed by the decision. Three seats will appear on the November ballot, and interested candidates have until July 24 to submit petitions.

Board members also approved the district’s initial budgets for the general fund and food service. The budgets will be amended as the year goes on, but as written would leave an additional $412 in fund balance in the general fund and an additional $670 in fund balance for the food service fund.

One change to food service in the district was the board’s approval of the Community Eligibility Provision, which will allow K-8 students to eat free breakfast if they meet certain requirements. Seventh and eighth grade students will eat breakfast in the cafeteria, while kindergarten through sixth grade students will each breakfast in the classroom during instructional hours.

Also approved were one-year contract extensions for both union and non-union employees and a resolution for the district to join the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) for the 2018-2019 year.