Source: Sherman Publications

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Bond opponents question school debt impact

by Phil Custodio

March 28, 2012

Members of CRISIS, Citizens for Responsible Intelligent Spending In Schools, want more details about Clarkston Schools' $20 million bond proposal.

"Administration has not provided a plan regarding how the proposed bond funding would be spent," said Betty Reilly of Independence Township. "What items will be purchased with what bond series? There is currently no plan for who is responsible for replacing damaged, lost or stolen technology items."

Also, the bond would be non-qualified by the state, so it could end up being more than one mill by the time it's paid off in 2029.

"We already pay 7 mills through 2029, and after that, the School Bond Loan Fund through 2033," said CRISIS member Larry Matta, who has a Masters in Business Adminstration with concentration in finance. "The School Bond Loan Fund is like a second mortgage."

Without state backing, falling property values would require more tax revenue to pay off the bond, Matta said.

CRISIS has about 15 members and has been online with a website, csdbond.yolasite.com, for about a month.

"The bond would make the district's financial picture worst," Matta said. "For real folks with pensions or fixed incomes, it's just another tax for people who can ill afford it."

"Administration is appealing to people's emotions. We all want what's best for our children," said Reilly, parent of two Clarkston students. "To say we don't is an inaccurate statement. We want to look at everything involved in the issue, weigh everything, school district debt, personal debt, can we afford to pay more in taxes?"

District debt includes $138 million in bonded debt, $60 million in interest by the time it's paid off, and $31 million in other long-term debt to the state, for a total of $229 million. The district's assets are listed in its latest audit at about $173 million.

"The school district's financial position is a concern for everybody," Matta said. "The school district, in financial terms, is highly leveraged. To me at least, it's not a sustainable position. It's like if you took everything you own and mortgaged it. You wouldn't do that. It doesn't make sense."

"The district must live within its means," Reilly said. "CCS would benefit more from an administration plan that would set aside money from the general fund to ensure there are sufficient textbooks in the classrooms and maintaining capital assets already paid for by taxpayers."

According to the audit report, 19 percent of students qualify for free or reduced meals, she pointed out.

"Seniors and low income families can ill-afford more taxes," she said. "Education is important to me and my family. I'll help however I can. I want to make sure the district spends within its means, for the benefit of students, not resurfacing tennis courts, especially in light of teachers and aides out of the classrooms. There's a disconnect."

According to state law, bond funds can't be used to pay teacher salaries.

"We can't put them on what is fundamentally needed in classrooms," Reilly said. "Capital needs, repairs and maintenance should be out of the General Fund budget."

In their research, they found information questioning the value of technology, including a 2009 Department of Education study of math and reading software. The study found no significant difference.

"In my opinion, we're better off with more teachers to reduce class sizes," Reilly said. "Technology becomes obsolete very fast and it's fragile. I still don't know the insurance cost. They've wheeled out the cart before everything was lined up."

"Students need to learn concepts and problem solving," Matta said. "Technology helps speed that along, its a tool. But students still need to know concepts."

Small classes are better, he said.

"Students learn concepts, then use technology to help facilitate problem solving," he said.

"I know Clarkston is one of lowest paid in Oakland and they've done a good job with the funds they have," Reilly said. "I also think they come back time and again for more money. In lean times, they need as much focus as possible on the classroom. I don't think the bond does that. It's fiscally irresponsible, especially with the debt schools already have."