The Saline Area Schools district has proposed two millages, both essentially renewals, to voters on the Nov. 7 ballot. While the CARES millage is in many ways a community millage, the proposed sinking fund millage directly impacts the school district.
The district is proposing a 10-year, .35-mill tax that would be levied from 2018-2027. In its first year, it would raise $594,082. Voters originally passed a .35-mill sinking fund tax in 2009. At the time, the district was limited to spending the revenue on construction, purchase of real-estate and repair of school buildings.
Last year, the state government expanded the use of the millage so that districts can now spend sinking fund dollars on school security improvements and technology.
The ability to spend fresh millage money on technology, which often has a short lifespan, appeals to school officials who didn’t see wisdom in buying laptops and iPads with money from the bond the district will be paying off for 20-years.
Saline Area Schools Superintendent Scot Graden said the sinking fund millage is critical to school district operations.
“It’s critical. There are systems in place accessing these funds now. I want people to understand that this is not something new or something more. If we don’t have these funds there are things we do now that will be reduced, eliminated or will have to come from somewhere else,” Graden said, addressing both the CARES and sinking fund proposals. “That will fundamentally change a lot of operations.”
More specifically regarding the sinking fund millage, Graden said the district has important facilities needs which must be addressed, even though the district’s voters passed a 20-year, $67.5 million bond in 2015.
“We did a facilities analysis when preparing for our bond. It showed over $120 million in projected needs. For us to say that we’ve passed the $67.5 million bond, now let’s say this passes and we receive $13-14 million over the life of the millage, we’re still well short of what the stated needs were,” Graden said. “Now, were we ever going to do $120 million? I don’t know. But the idea that we have all these pots of revenue and no unmet needs, that’s not accurate.”
In terms of the more traditional sinking fund uses, the district is prioritizing the redesign of the parking lot west of Saline High School.
According to Rex Clary, Director of Facilities for the school district, the district used sinking fund money to rebuild sidewalks around the district last year. Sinking fund dollars were also used for new LED lighting in the gym at Liberty and the Saline High School pool.
“It’s for construction and for emergency situations. When a drain or a pump fails, you have to have funds for replacements,” Clary said.
Sinking fund millages allow districts to make those costly replacements without impacting dollars that would otherwise be spent in classrooms.
Clary said the district gets good bang for its sinking fund buck.
“It gives us the ability to self-manage projects. With the bond funds we have an architect and construction manager and we’ve got to spend a certain amount of money in the first three years. The sinking fund allows us to do self-managed projects where your dollar goes further. We can use local contractors. It doesn’t have to be a prevailing-wage project,” Clary said.
If sinking fund dollars are being spent on technology and security, will that leave the district with less money to make sure facilities are maintained?
“It’s a balancing act,” Graden said. “If Rex comes to us and says, ‘Hey, this just happened. We need to address the entry point at this building,’ then we have to decide, based on our priorities, what we do next.”
On the technology front the district already has plans to use sinking fund dollars for 30 “future focus classrooms.” That includes laptops, devices, carts and audio-visual systems.
On the security front, the school district is considering video cameras and facial recognition software at Pooh Corner at Liberty School, Graden said.
“We want to test it at Liberty and see if it’s something that would be beneficial at the other buildings,” Graden said.
According to Assistant Superintendent for Finance Janice Warner, the sinking fund has accrued a fund balance of $1.5 million.