Bill would free up 'building' funds for other school needs

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Capital News Service
LANSING – Public schools may soon have more flexibility in purchasing new buses, computers and software.
Currently schools can raise revenue from a voter-approved millage, which is then set aside in a so-called sinking fund. The money can be used only to purchase real estate, construct or repair buildings and install non-equipment technology, like broadband wiring.
A bill by Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, would allow districts to use the money to buy buses, computers and software.
Rep. Greg MacMaster, R-Kewadin, who co-sponsored the bill, said many teachers and superintendents have asked for more flexibility in using such funds.
With the impending cuts to school budgets, lawmakers need to “help schools, and this is one way to do it,” MacMaster said.
That change would also help schools stay up to date in the pivotal area of technology, according to MacMaster. “We are in a technology-driven society, and we need all the help we can get.”
Eight years ago, voters approved a 5-year millage for Cheboygan Area Schools, which was later renewed. Currently the district is in its third year of the second millage, according to Superintendent Mark Dombroski.
A district can collect up to 5 mills for its sinking fund.
A mill is $1 for every $1,000 of taxable value of real estate. An owner of property worth $100,000 would pay an extra $250 per year in property taxes with a 5-mill increase.
Dombroski said the district has used its sinking fund for large building projects and repairs.
“It’s invaluable dollars to school districts right now with everything going on,” Dombroski said.
According to Dombroski, the proposed change would fill an important need if his school district could spend some of the money on technology and buses.
“We have several buses that have gone beyond their 6-year life use and our technology is 6 to 10 years old,” Dombroski said. “We are really outdated.”
Cheboygan has more than 700 computers that need to be replaced, according to Dombroski.
Since technology is a big part of the way schools educate students, an expansion in how sinking funds can be used is needed, according to David Martell, executive director of the Michigan School Business Officials.
Martell said allowing the purchase of buses would also ensure student safety despite cuts in state funding,
Many districts, including Wyoming Public Schools and Davidson School District, are asking for a sinking fund millage on May 3.
Martell said a sinking fund is a “much more efficient way to set aside money for a purpose,” compared to bonds for which taxpayers must pay principal and interest.
Cheboygan’s Dombroski said his district will ask for renewal of the millage once it expires in two years.
While local voters have been supportive in the past, Dombroski said he doesn’t know if the millage will pass again. “Right now, while everyone is strapping for every dime they can save, it’s a big question mark.”
The bill is pending in the House Tax Policy Committee.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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