Faced with mounting budget shortfalls, Washtenaw County schools are reaching out to taxpayers for help.

The Regional Enhancement Millage Proposal, which will be voted on today, seeks to provide funding for public schools countywide. If it passes, the millage will increase property taxes in Washtenaw County by $2 for every $1,000 of taxable value during the next five years. That money, projected at $30 million for the upcoming year, will then be distributed to the county’s 10 districts on a per-pupil basis.

Todd Roberts, superintendent of Ann Arbor Public Schools, explained that Washtenaw County’s schools have faced significant funding issues for several years. According to Roberts, AAPS’s cost-cutting measures have included reducing staff and putting a cap on health care contributions for employees.

Despite those efforts, Roberts said, the millage was unavoidable.

“This is the only option to increase revenue (adequately),” Roberts said.

In August, the county school district’s Board of Education voted to place the millage on the Nov. 3 election ballot.

Since that vote, the district has faced substantial new cuts.

Roberts explained that the state controls 90 percent of the district’s funding. Over the past two weeks, the state has reduced this year’s funding by $525 per pupil. Roberts anticipates additional cuts of more than $600 per student for the 2010-2011 school year.

Roberts said the millage would help to compensate for some of those losses.

“All of those things combined point to the need to raise additional revenue,” Roberts said.

He added that the millage alone would not eliminate budget issues. Even if it passes, the district will continue to reduce costs and consolidate services, Roberts said. But if the millage doesn’t pass, Roberts believes the district will face major reductions.

Roberts said the largest reductions would take place among staff, since 85 percent of the district’s funds go toward compensating employees.

The millage proposal faces significant opposition from several groups, two of which — Citizens for a Responsible Washtenaw and Ann Arbor Citizens for Responsible School Spending — pulled together locally based campaigns over the past several weeks.

Niki Wardner is a founding member of A2CRSS and self-described “homemaker and public school volunteer” in Ann Arbor. Two of her children currently attend Ann Arbor public schools.

Her group includes several former school board members and focuses on irresponsible spending.

Wardner said she’s disappointed with the AAPS’s handling of budget issues.

“(AAPS) don’t seem to be willing to look at other solutions — everything from cutting administration to consolidating districts and services,” Wardner said.

Though Wardner said she’s largely pleased with AAPS teachers and administrators, “there’s something inherently wrong with how the whole structural thing is set up.”

She cited what she considers the district’s over-reliance on taxpayer money.

“There’s a lot of issues and I feel like their answer is, ‘Give us the money and we’ll take the next five years to fix the problem,’” Wardner said, “And my answer is, ‘You’ve already had five years. Why should I give you money for another five?’”

Albert Berriz serves as treasurer of CRW, a group allied with A2CRSS. He is the CEO of McKinley, a locally based real estate investment and management company. Berriz said his group includes mostly business people and also targets irresponsible spending.

The group proposed a “five-point plan for (district) transformational change,” according to Berriz.

“Our program has not been to say ‘vote no’ because we don’t like it, but to give a substantive solution to the issue,” Berriz said.

He said the CRW has produced alternatives that don’t require taxing residents in a state whose unemployment rate is about 15 percent.

“I don’t think it’s fair to go to the community in this economy without having done the responsible spending and having addressed those issues,” Berriz said.

According to Berriz, his group’s goal transcends political party affiliation.

“On both sides I think people are truly concerned with how we fund the public school system on a sustainable basis,” Berriz said.

Berriz also emphasized the potential impact the millage’s passage could have on University student tenants.

A property tax increase, according to Berriz, would mean higher rentals for student tenants because landlords would be forced to pass the tax on to their renters.

That potential consequence, Berriz said, is one reason why the Washtenaw Area Apartment Association came out against the millage.

Berriz said the WAAA planned to distribute fliers at a housing fair yesterday explaining the consequences of the millage tax on students should it pass.

“It will reflect in a direct increase in their rent,” Berriz said.

Alice Ehn, the WAAA’s executive director, said that a considerable number of local apartment owners rent to campus students.

She said the millage’s passage would increase the cost of renting apartments in Ann Arbor because of the increase in property taxes.

“I would think students should be concerned if their rent is going up or not,” Ehn said.

Nevertheless, the University’s chapter of the College Democrats have come out in favor of the millage.

According to the group’s chair, Sam Marvin, the millage’s benefits outweigh the potential rent increase.

Marvin said the Democrats are allied with “It Takes a Millage,” a local pro-millage group, and support its objective.

“This millage would work to close the funding gap so (AAPS) doesn’t have to cut programs like art, science, music and sports,” Marvin said.

The College Democrats delivered pro-millage literature in several student neighborhoods Monday night and spent much of yesterday distributing information on the Diag. Additionally, the group put up fliers, made phone calls and sent text messages urging students to vote yes on the initiative, Marvin said.

Marvin added that even if he did pay property taxes, he’d still support the millage. “I wouldn’t mind paying higher rent. I’m sure some people would, but I think the situation is calling for it.”

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