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Op-ed: the sinking fund millage — a foundation for the future

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Bach Elementary School | Kelsey Zimmerman

By Kelsey Zimmerman

It’s time to fulfill our patriotic duties once again! Today is an election day in Ann Arbor. On the ballot is a replacement for the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ current Sinking Fund millage, a store of money exclusively designated to improve and expand infrastructure. This will mostly include repairs, but expansion in areas where housing demand is growing will also be addressed, as well as auditorium repairs and athletic field upgrades, and a host of other projects. This fund is immune to state budget cuts, and shields the district’s general fund — vital to the day-to-day functioning of our schools — from depletion. Just last fall, the district was forced to withdraw money from the general fund in order to complete repairs on the flooded Allen Elementary School. 

Ann Arbor taxpayers pay a rate of 1 mill for the Sinking Fund. This year’s proposal increases that amount to a rate of 2.5 mills. It’s a difference of paying $1 for every per $1,000 of taxable housing property you own up to $2.50. For the average Ann Arbor home, which sells for about $300,000 and has a taxable rate of $150,000, that equates to just $375 a year. It’s a higher rate than the schools have ever asked from us. But they’ve already clearly shown they only ask for what they need — or even just what will allow them to scrape by.

If you haven’t been inside a local school recently, the district has provided virtual tours of the buildings. What you’ll see are cracked floors, walls and ceilings; patches of mold on ceiling tiles; missing tiles or chips on stairs; and, for those of us more aesthetically moved, tile patterns that look straight out of a version of The Shining re-imagined in a public school. 

The average AAPS building is over 60 years old. Repairs needed as buildings age simply to keep doors open are becoming more frequent. Our schools face the compounded challenges of having many schools around the same age needing these repairs at the same time while the population of some areas in town is increasing. Four elementary schools (Burns Park, King, Mitchell, and Thurston) will add modular units for the 2017-18 school year to meet population growth. While these structures, with four classrooms, an office, a bathroom, and air conditioning, sound like a major upgrade from the dank and dingy “portables” of my AAPS experience, they still are makeshift measures as developments crop up in and around the city. 

As the popularity of summer camps continues to grow along with the threat of global warming, it is also prudent to invest in air conditioning now and make schools safe for kids year-round. It is hotter in June and September than it used to be and that trend is not slowing or stopping anytime soon. 

These funds will repair and update or replace playgrounds, pools, moldy ceiling tiles and parking lots. These are the frames of childhood memories. 

No one particularly likes taxes. And it can be tempting to see something like this millage on the ballot and think, “I don’t have kids,” or “My kids go to private school,” and let that lead to “I’m not going to vote to send my tax dollars to something that won’t affect me.” But it will. In Ann Arbor, we vote at our school buildings; we use their basketball courts to play with our friends and family; we attend Rec & Ed classes. With this money, we invest in a future that’s better for everyone in our community. It’s important to remember that for some kids, school is the safest place in their lives. Let’s make it as safe as it can be. 

On a recent visit to Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, memories of my time as a student there flooded my senses. Even in an empty hallway I could hear a chorus of slamming locker doors, see backpacks bobbing on their owners’ backs like buoys in the open sea. And when I entered a classroom, there was even the same half-measure I had often witnessed on wet, dreary days: trash cans lined up to collect rainwater from a failing roof. 

I graduated from Pioneer in 2009. 

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