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Ballot proposal's impact pondered

TRAVERSE CITY — Approval of a statewide ballot proposal would guarantee more funding to Michigan's schools, but local districts are split on whether it's the answer to their financial woes.

Voters will decide Nov. 7 on Proposal 5, which would mandate automatic increases at the rate of inflation in state funding for public schools, colleges and universities. It would also cap districts' retirement contributions, allow use of a three-year rolling average for enrollment counts in districts with declining enrollment and trim the gap in per-student foundation grants between the lowest-spending and highest-spending districts by $300 by 2012.

The measure would increase school funding by an estimated $565 million next year. But leaders from some northern Michigan districts oppose Proposal 5, putting them at odds with many other districts around the state.

Gerald Morris, board president for Traverse City Area Public Schools, said he's concerned about infusing more cash into what he views as an inequitable funding system. Like most districts in northern Michigan, TCAPS receives the state's minimum foundation grant of $7,085 per student.

"All they're talking about is the gap in the foundation grant amount," Morris said, pointing to a much wider differential in categorical funding provided to districts beyond the per-pupil grant.

In June, TCAPS became the first Michigan district to publicly oppose the measure. Board members voted against the plan introduced by the K-16 Coalition, a state-wide group that includes many state public school leadership organizations and spearheaded the petition drive to put Proposal 5 on the ballot.

But at Kalkaska Public Schools, which receives the same $7,085 per-student foundation grant from the state, interim superintendent Lee Sandy recommended board members get behind Proposal 5. The board discussed the proposition but has not taken a position on the issue.

"We're not against it," Sandy said. "We feel the equity thing will come out of this, but we need what we can get right now."

Glen Lake school board president Joan Hawley said members voted this week to oppose Proposal 5 amid concerns that it could widen the existing funding gap and threaten other municipal services. She said considering only her school's financial situation was too narrow a view.

"As a school district, we have to look at the big picture," she said.

Kirt Kilbourne is co-chairman of Citizens for Equity, a local group of parents, educators and concerned residents from northern Michigan communities who want changes in the state's education funding system. The group opposes Proposal 5.

"It does nothing for the problem of equity," Kilbourne said. "This would continue it on and make it worse as time goes on."

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