By Andrew Cluley
The Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education voted 7-0 to place a 20-year capitol bond proposal of up to $1 billion on the ballot in November. The proposal comes as the district looks to maintain buildings that average over 63 years of age and also provide additional space as new developments in several areas of the community are expected to increase enrollment.
The frequent sighting of work trucks at Huron High School gave President Harmony Mitchell a sense of how often repairs are needed in older schools, but the true cost of repairs became evident when she served as Board Treasurer a few years ago. “It just amazed me at how much work we were putting into fixing old stuff, that would continue to break and then eventually not have the parts to fix, that amazed me,” Mitchell says.
Last December the Board of Education received an external review of the condition of the district’s facilities conducted by EMG. The report highlighted over $820 million in facility needs over the next 20 years just to maintain the existing schools. Adding the cost of technology, buses, furniture, musical instruments, and green enhancements to make AAPS more sustainable is projected to cost an additional $618 million over the same time span.
In 2017 voters approved a ten-year, 2.5-mill sinking fund millage to provide funding for repairs, but the projected $200 million won’t provide enough funding to meet the projected need of $1.4 billion. Additionally restrictions in how sinking fund dollars can be spent preclude it from covering costs such as replacing buses, furniture, and instruments.
While meeting facility needs as a manner of supporting education is important to Trustee Jeff Gaynor, he admits his instinct isn’t to go for top of the line enhancements. That’s partly based on his concerns about equity for students across Michigan. However, he was sold on the proposal’s ability to make a difference environmentally. Gaynor says AAPS must make this effort green. “That we make a commitment to sustainability, to reducing our carbon footprint, and that’s going to cost, Gaynor says. “I believe if we’re going to ask for this much money we need to make that commitment as part of this proposal.”
The cost reductions possible from having more energy efficient buildings is also a selling point for Vice President Bryan Johnson. “When we think about the environmental impacts, we think about some of the bills that come across our table every single week with old systems and how much they end up costing us,” Johnson says. “It’s throwing good money after bad money as folks say.”
For Trustee Jessica Kelly the proposal is what’s necessary to be good stewards and respect the history of Ann Arbor’s investment in education dating to the 1850’s. She believes it’s the duty of the trustees to put forward this proposal for our children, our teachers, and the environment. However Kelly is disappointed that the obligation to provide school facilities isn’t handled in Lansing. “I’m not happy, because I’m upset that the state of Michigan continues to be one of 11 states that refuses to invest in public school infrastructure,” Kelly says. “I’m not happy that we have to ask our community to do this, and I’m not happy that communities who can’t ask their taxpayers to do it won’t have these assets.”
The work that’s gone into this proposal by staff, and the challenging questions trustees have asked over the last several months make Johnson confident that the proposal is ready. “I’m really excited about this, I ask the community to really take time to understand how this stuff works,” Johnson says. “I think sometimes we think we do understand, and if you do have questions, ask the people who have the information.”