Speer: A tough choice with kids at its core

Much has been written about the Alpena-Montmorency-Alcona school millage on the ballot Tuesday.

Citizens of all three counties have used the letters to the editor forum of the newspaper to express their opinions, pro and con, regarding the request. This exchange has been good, as it has allowed readers to understand exactly the passion and emotion that surrounds the request.

Frankly, the millage isn’t ideal. In a perfect world, none of the school districts involved, and which stand to benefit from it, would have chosen this route to go before voters.

But this isn’t a perfect world. The districts didn’t have a choice. Under state regulations today, this was the only option available to them.

And in the end, when all the words are digested, the emotion removed from the equation and voters are just left in the polling booth deciding whether to give the request a thumbs up or down, there should be one question remaining that needs addressed – what’s best for the students?

I can’t remember a millage request in recent years that has generated such discussion. Without a doubt I believe had school officials the choice of separating the request out between the four school districts, or had officials the option of reducing the length of the collection period, that would have been done. It’s unfortunate neither was an option.

Voters need to understand, though, that this request was not made lightly by any of the superintendents or boards of educations involved. Each of those folks understands the commitment they are asking from taxpayers, and each I believe feels a sense of responsibility to those taxpayers to justify each expenditure.

And, in each of the districts – Alpena, Alcona, Atlanta and Hillman – numerous programs have been slashed in recent years, staffs reduced and allocations relocated in cost saving adjustments.

Unfortunately, relief from Lansing has been virtually non-existent. Oh, there have been some attempts, but nothing to the extent that allows local superintendents to rest easier at night or feel comfortable that the worst is behind us.

Truthfully, the worst actually lies in front of us.

Alpena Superintendent Brent Holcomb is on record that in the months ahead Alpena will have to file with the state a deficit plan because of the financial condition it faces.

This isn’t a threat to get the millage passed, it is a reality with or without the millage. The only difference the millage makes is the extent of the deficit the district will face.

Alpena is a good example of what the four districts have done. Holcomb said in the last three years his district has closed schools, reconfigured student size in different grades, reduced programs, froze wages and reduced benefits. Despite that, in that same period, the state reduced reimbursement to the district by $300 per student, the state increased Alpena’s participation in the retirement system by $241 per student and Alpena experienced a drop in enrollment by 180 students.

“These three factors mean funding shrunk by $3.4 million compared to two years ago,” Holcomb said recently.

As you can see, it isn’t that the districts have ignored the financial mess they find themselves in.

In the end, as I see it, it all comes down to what is best for the students.

As a community, this millage is our wrestling match with that question.

Some would argue it would be best to defeat the message and force the state to address educational problems everywhere. They would contend it is the only way the issue ultimately will be solved. But, is that really what’s best for the students?

Others would say we need to force the districts to keep reducing, keep cutting, keep eliminating. But, is that really what’s best for the students? As evidence by above, the districts have addressed the issue. When is enough, enough?

Or, is passing the millage what really is best? Is is better to provide local superintendents and boards of education money to re-implement certain programs, purchase new busing or upgrade computers and textbooks to meet the standards and expectations of today? Is that really what’s best for the students?

You can vote whatever way you like Tuesday.

Certainly I know how I’m going to cast my ballot.

The only thing I ask: Please, in your mind, let this one question be the one that drives your vote: “what’s best for the students?”

If you do, I feel confident you will make the right decision. Despite the emotion, I believe each of us knows what is right. Our students deserve our support.

What’s best for my children, my grandchildren or my great-grandchildren?

It’s a question we need to answer before Tuesday, as how we answer that question will depend what kind of future those students will face Wednesday morning.