APS to explore options after millage defeat

ALPENA The school district is officially broke, but it won’t be closed for business any time soon.

The first thing officials will do is notify the state the school is now operating in the red, Alpena Public Schools Superintendent Brent Holcomb said Wednesday. But this step will take at least 48 days, due to board approvals and documentation required.

On Tuesday, voters in three counties overwhelmingly turned down a 3 mill increase in property taxes that would have provided some additional operating funds for area schools.

“I think going out and asking the voters for a tax increase is just difficult in these times,” Holcomb said.

Turnout was higher than average for a special election, Bonnie Friedrichs, Alpena County Clerk, said. One reason was because in the City of Alpena voters also were electing two new council members.

Over the whole area impacted by the millage increase, including Alcona, Alpena and Montmorency counties and Alpena townships, 20.25 percent of registered voters turned out, Friedrichs said.

Alcona County had the highest turnout where 35 percent of registered residents marked ballots, either as absentee voters or at polls, she said. But by evening’s end, 2,502 voted for the increase; 7,433 voted against it.

Given the results, Superintendent Holcomb said at the school board’s next meeting March 18, trustees are scheduled to sign off on a deficit budget, which will show the district is out of savings. This budget also will show Alpena schools will be $500,000 to $800,000 in the hole by the school year’s end.

From that point, district officials have 30 calendar days to send the budget to the Michigan Department of Education, formally notifying the governmental agency of the financial distress, Holcomb said. But the drain will continue and by next year the district will be $2 million or more in debt.

The district’s woes have been caused by what Holcomb describes as a triple whammy:

  • the state of Michigan has been slashing the amount of money it provides school for education since 2011.
  • retirement costs are going up.
  • student enrollment continues to drop, declining at twice the state average. This means even less money from the state.

This year, there were 60 fewer students in Alpena, Holcomb said. Next year that figure could be an additional drop of 60 to 100 students as Michigan’s birthrate continues to dive.

Two years ago the district was operating with a balanced budget. But cuts made since by the legislature under the leadership of Gov. Rick Snyder are being blamed for the downward spiral.

Under the deficit budget plan, the district will have two years to make up for the losses, Holcomb said. Meanwhile, more and more programs will continue to be cut.

If the district is eventually recognized by the state as bankrupt, Holcomb doesn’t expect a rescue right away. More than 50 Michigan school districts are already on the list with that status, and their number is growing, he said.

The final step could be that public schools are taken over by private enterprises companies that provide education through charter schools, he said.

“But we’re a ways away from that,” Holcomb said. “We know what we’re doing. We’re still going to offer quality education to our kids as best we can, given the resources.”

Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at blehndorff@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5693.