Saturday, April 25, 2009

From today's Muskegon Chronicle

Muskegon district seeking $12.5 million bond issue

Saturday, April 25, 2009
By Lynn Moore

MUSKEGON -- If Muskegon voters turn down a school bond request in May, they'll pay less in property taxes. And if they approve the request, their taxes still will be lower than they were last year.

That's the message Muskegon Public Schools officials are trying to get out to voters who will be considering the $12.5 million request on May 5.

It's not an easy one to get across, said Superintendent Colin Armstrong. Voters will be asked to increase a 5.5-mill property tax levy by 0.2 mill. The extra levy, in place until 2023, would be used to pay off bonds sold to pay for improvements, which include new computers and other teaching technology, building maintenance such as boilers and roofs, buses and improvements to Hackley Stadium that do not include artificial turf.

The tax originally was approved at 7 mills in 1995, and was dropped to 5.5 mills in December. Without the voters' approval, the district is expected to have to drop the millage by about another 1.5 mills by the end of this year. Either way, the tax will be in place until 2023.

The original 7 mills raised $43 million for widespread improvements in the district, and many improvements included in this year's request are left over from the 1995 proposal that ran out of money before they could be accomplished.

Under the proposal, the owner of a home with a market value of $75,000 and taxable value of $37,500 would pay an annual property tax of $214 to pay off Muskegon Public Schools' debt. If the proposal fails, that property owner's annual tax would be $150.

Proposed improvements include $1 million for the stadium, which include cement work in the bleacher area, a new ticket booth, and, most significantly, renovating locker rooms and six bathrooms in the tunnel beneath the stadium. A citizens group is working to raise money for artificial turf at the stadium, which Armstrong said school officials couldn't justify including in the bond request when there are so many other needs in the district.

Armstrong called the stadium an "important part of the community image" that needs to be preserved.

"If you don't look at certain structural issues, you can find yourself locked out -- you get red-tagged," Armstrong said. "If you get red-tagged, you can't use it anymore."

The bond proposal includes "less sexy" but very necessary items like new or retrofitted boilers and roof repairs, Armstrong said. The district spends over $2 million in natural gas and electricity costs each year, and Armstrong said he believes the improvements could save 5 percent to 10 percent on those costs. At Steele Middle School, which would get a high-efficiency boiler retrofit, the cost savings are expected to be between $60,000 and $70,000 a year.

Armstrong called the stadium an "important part of the community image" that needs to be preserved.

And that's an immediate cost savings to the district, which is looking to make spending cuts anywhere it can.

Perhaps most important to the learning that occurs in the district's 317 classrooms is the proposal's replacement of 800 of the district's 1,100 student computers.

The average age of instructional computers is eight years, which means they can't operate new systems and are breaking down often, Armstrong said.

"Anyone who works with a computer knows what that means: You're working with a dinosaur," he said.

The proposal also calls for renovating science labs that don't just get old, but get "out of date," Armstrong said. Labs that would get attention are those at Steele Middle School and Muskegon High.

All classrooms also would get new white boards -- the modern-day equivalent to chalk boards -- and "smart carts" that include a teacher computer, network projector, document camera, audio system and DVD/VCR/CD player.

In addition, the district would buy 10 school buses.

If voters agree to the millage proposal, all projects completed with bond money are expected to be finished by January 2012.

The Muskegon district currently has the county's lowest debt per pupil and will continue to be the lowest if voters in Fruitport approve a bond proposal to build a new high school, Armstrong said.

"I think we can comfortably say to the community we are being prudent," Armstrong said.

When district officials first began contemplating a millage extension, administrators "quickly" came up with $30 million in needs, but knew they couldn't ask voters to support that much, particularly in this economy, Armstrong said.

"We are not trying to add something to the system," Armstrong said. "What we're doing is replenishing the system."

While $1 million sounds like a lot of money to spend at Hackley Stadium, Armstrong said he's been telling community groups to consider the cost of upgrading a residential bathroom and then consider the size and age of the stadium.

"When I tell people (the restrooms) were built in 1929 and last renovated in '29, I haven't had one person say we shouldn't spend the money," Armstrong said. "They just curl their lips and say 'ewwwww."'

Contrary to some rumors, the tunnel underneath the stadium would remain intact for traditional marching band processions, Armstrong said.

Muskegon Athletic Director Michael Watson said the stadium locker rooms have become somewhat of a "running joke" with alumni who used them when they attended Muskegon High. He said the locker rooms are small and need to be expanded, showers are inoperable and every year, maintenance staff have to deal with frozen pipes because of the inability to keep the facility warm enough in the winter.

Watson said he'd also like to move the coaches/officials room out of the stadium boiler room.

Watson has been working with a private group to pay for other improvements to the stadium, including artificial turf. The improvements administrators agreed to ask voters to pay for are "not frills," Armstrong said.

The district decided to seek the bond proposal this year because the district needed to drop the number of tax mills it has been levying since 1995. Under state law, a millage can generate only the amount needed to pay off bonds, and in this case the 5.5 mills will be more than is needed for the 1995 projects.

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