By Jim Newell
ORION TWP. — When voters head to the polls on Feb. 27 they will be asked to support two proposed replacement millages for Lake Orion Community Schools: a non-homestead millage and a sinking fund millage.
District Superintendent Ben Kirby notes that both millages are for 10 years, are currently in place and that the district is not raising the tax rate on either proposed millage.
“Part of the reason that we chose to do two at one time was because school funding is difficult for people to understand. It’s complex and it’s not the normal way that businesses or individual homeowners get revenue and spend,” Kirby said. “The school district worked hard through our strategic plan to try and identify some goals and this was one of the things that we really wanted to try to emphasize. Both of these millages allow us to use our general operating dollars the way they were intended.”
Kirby said both millages are essential for the district and, in the case of the non-homestead millage, will help with general operating costs, while the sinking fund will help with such things as facility repairs and maintenance and school bus purchases and technology upgrades.
“The more flexibility we have out of our general operations, the more we can be competitive with our staff and provide programs for our students. The less we have in our general operations, the less that we can do those things,” Kirby said. “By doing these two millages it will increase our flexibility and our ability to utilize general operation dollars where we have the maximum amount of flexibility.”
The non-homestead millage will provide the district approximately $10.6 million in 2024.
“The non-homestead millage is something that is absolutely essential for every school district to have to maximize the student foundation allowance. That is the amount of money we get per student,” Kirby said. “That 18 mills is the first piece of all money that we get for our students. So, we get that money, send it to the state of Michigan and they turn around and send it back with the rest of the money to equal the approximately $9,600 (the current student foundation allowance).”
School districts receive $9,608 for each student in the 2023-24 school year, an increase of $458 over last year.
In 1994, voters approved the Michigan Education Finance Amendment, known as Proposal A, that changed how schools are funded. Orion voters have passed the non-homestead millage since that time. Voters last passed a 20.5 mills non-homestead request in 2014 that is set to expire.
“If we don’t have that non-homestead millage in place, we can’t send the 18 mills to the state so they can’t send it back, so we don’t get the full funding,” Kirby said. “The district has been successful since 1994 in getting its non-homestead millage passed because voters understand that it is essential to the district getting its full funding from the state.”
The district is asking voters to authorize 21 mills but, by law, can only tax up to 18 mills.
“School districts have the authority to levy up to 18 (mills). It’s the maximum but it’s also the minimum to get the state funding. If we ever fall below 18, then we either have to say to our community ‘We’re not going to get full funding for our students for this year or for however many years you fall below that.’ Or, you go back to the community for an individual election. You really want to try to avoid that,” Kirby said.
If the district were to seek only 18 mills, the Headlee rollback would reduce the millage rate and the district would not receive full state funding. The 21 mills are a cushion to make sure the district stays above 18 mills.
The non-homestead millage helps with student programs, services and staffing and does not affect primary residences. Instead, it is tax on businesses, second homes, rental properties and vacant land, according to district documents.
Around 88-90% of the district’s costs are staffing, salaries and benefits, Kirby said.
The 10-year sinking fund replacement millage is 1.8862 mills and will provide the district about $5 million in 2024. When voters approved the district’s sinking fund in 2016 school districts could only use those funds for limited purchases and improvements.
“Now schools can use sinking funds for the purchase of buses, parts to keep the buses on the roads, and also for technology. Those were not in place in 2016. It allows the school district to spend money in those areas. Before, we didn’t have that opportunity,” Kirby said.
The sinking fund can be used for construction/repair of schools, security, transportation, technology and property purchases, according to district documents.
“If the district has to replace five buses in its fleet each year at roughly a $120,000 cost of a school bus, that’s $500,000. With a sinking fund, the district can pay for those buses with sinking fund dollars instead of general operating funds,” Kirby said. “If we can take out our five buses annually that we buy to keep safe buses on the road, that’s half a million dollars that we wouldn’t be taking out of general operations that can be spent on staffing and programming. Same with technology.”
To keep up with technology upgrades, the district needs to regularly purchase and update its equipment and software.
“Our bond has been great as far as putting technology in front of our students, but every piece of technology we utilize needs refreshed every 3-5 years. So, when we get to our refresh cycle we could use sinking fund dollars for our refresh,” Kirby said.
Getting the word out to voters
“Our initial steps and our final steps are all going to be about information. That’s really what we do as a school district – educate, get the information out there so voters can make an informed decision on whether they want to support these millages. That’s really the role we have as a school district, information, information, information,” Kirby said.
Kirby has been going to meetings at local governments and community organizations to share information about the proposed millages, and the district has been distributing flyers and sharing information on social media.
The district’s website, lakeorionschools.org, is where voters can find the comprehensive information explaining the millage proposals and answers to frequently asked questions.
“The school districts are an integral part of a community. Home values are directly related to the success of your school system. So, whether you have a child in the schools or not, it’s good for communities, it’s good for individual homeowners to have successful, reputable schools and that’s something that we benefit from here,” Kirby said.
By Jim Newell