Saginaw Township School Vote: More Than an Issue of Taxes

Opponents Fear Township Getting 'City-fied'

Posted In: Politics, Local, News, Local,   From Issue 659   By: Mike Thompson

24th April, 2008     0

Are tax votes for school buildings in Saginaw Township starting to take multiple meanings involving race relations?

This is the view of many civic leaders and grassroots volunteers who support a school millage tax renewal on May 6 in a suburb that has grown almost as large as the main inner City of Saginaw.      

It is not an outwardly advertised or proclaimed view, but it exists somewhere in the consciousness of virtually all who are involved. Such is the cauldron of race mixing in our society, sometimes at the forefront, sometimes subtle, but always there. 

Tax-backers say some of these meanings may be related to ethnic issues, implying bias among the foes. Opponents answer sharply that their views have nothing to do with race.         

The first school question is standard: For the sake of the young people, are Saginaw Township residents at the ballot box willing to invest their tax money to maintain and upgrade school buildings for the next generations?         

 But this basic issue immediately becomes more complex: What if some of those students do not have homes in the township, but come from elsewhere? And what if some are not of the township's predominant Caucasian persuasion?        

More insight will come to light on May 6.

Township voters will decide a 2.25-mill renewal to raise $40 million for continued maintenance of such needs as building roofs and parking lots, along with new measures such as remodeled entrances for improved security.           

Saginaw Township residents narrowly defeated a similar proposal last November, when it was for 2.50 mills (a slight increase of 0.25 mill) rather than for a straight renewal.         

Previously, in May 2006, two-thirds of voters stomped a much larger wish list that would have cost $104 million.       

All of this has happened during a time when Black and Hispanic students represent an increasing share of young pupils, some coming across township borders during a state 'Schools of Choice' enrollment reform that took root during the middle 1990s.        

 Racial attitudes seem to have entered the picture, say some school supporters. This is because critics have opposed tax proposals in response to the Board of Education allowing a large influx of schools of choice youngsters. Cross-district students come from 14 other communities, but the largest group is from the highly minority City of Saginaw system.    

School tax-backers speak carefully, but their feelings are clear.      

"The diversity of the students and residents of Saginaw Township is changing," says Judi Lincoln, board president.     

"Some people don’t recognize that and I'm not comfortable extrapolating that into their views on schools of choice, but I do have my values, and others have different values."        

Other tax backers have said foes of cross-district choice are "living in the 1950s" or envision that Saginaw Township should remain almost lily-White, but they will not attach their names to the statements.

'Alien' Pupils Increase

A leading critic of the tax plan and schools of choice is Rol Jersevic, a past Board of Education member and former Republican state representative.         

"Race is not relevant," he says. "The point is that Saginaw Township schools should be for Saginaw Township students. If a family can come out to live in Saginaw Township, and pay Saginaw Township taxes, they are more than welcome."       

 Lincoln and others counter that Jersevic backed enrollment choice during the middle 1990s when the largest group would have come from affluent almost-all-White Kochville Township rather than the impoverished Black-majority Saginaw school system.         

Jersevic has drawn fire from sources ranging from the Saginaw NAACP to White liberals, for repeatedly referring to schools of choice youngsters as 'alien' students. When Review Magazine asked for his response, he paged through a dictionary.       

"Alien means 'foreign, born abroad' " he quoted. "That's 100 percent correct. Some people just can't handle the truth."        

Todd Scharich joins Jersevic as an opponent of school of choice and the tax plan, but he does not agree with some of the tactics.      

"We have similar ideas, but Rol can be a polarizing person," Scharich says. AA term like 'alien' - I can see why it could be taken the wrong way. I don't always agree with his approach, but I agree with his points."        

"I have spoken at board meetings as a sort of lone wolf, and the one thing that makes me more mad than anything is the implication of being called a racist or a kid-hater. I'm just being responsible. I don't think it's the Saginaw Township taxpayers' responsibility to provide the buildings for everyone to attend," he says.           

"We have everything in Saginaw Township from million-dollar homes to $400 apartments. If people want to have our children in the school system, then let them move here and become a member of the Saginaw Township school system."

A Dozen Years of 'Choice'

Cross-district choice was among middle 1990s state education reforms that also included establishment of independent charter academies, along with Proposal A's increased reliance on sales taxes instead of property levies.          

Saginaw Township gradually has grown to an enrollment of 865 schools of pupils, or 17 percent of the 5,300 total headcount.    

Superintendent Jerry Seese notes that the in-district ratio of ethnic minority students, 26 percent, is only slightly lower than the cross-district share of 30 percent. This means that integration in township schools would be increasing even without schools of choice.           

The in-district count of African American students is 11 percent, actually 1 percentage point higher than the out-of-district ratio of 10 percent.
Numbers therefore show that open enrollment is slightly, and ironically, boosting the district's ratio of Caucasian pupils.          

Still, Seese joins Lincoln and others who view a racial factor in some of the anti-millage votes.      

"Every year we look at schools of choice," Seese says. "It wasn't much of an issue until 2006, when we asked for the larger $104 million bond issue."          

Jersevic is among critics who say the families of cross-district children receive a tax break because they don't have to pay the township's building taxes.    

 Seese and Finance Director Diane Davis answer that these families still pay into the state aid fund, and that 514 Saginaw Township children head in the opposite direction by enrolling in other districts.           

With 865 pupils coming from out of the district but 514 from in-district going elsewhere, the township's net gain is only 351.         

"Some people can't believe that a Saginaw Township resident would go anywhere else for their education, but open enrollment works both ways," Davis says.      
"Why is it so impossible for them to understand that families in other districts also pay the same 6-mill base levy to the state, and that the state sends that money to the district where the child is attending?"   

 Another finance issue is that each choice student brings $7,200 in state aid for teaching and operations, which far exceeds a typical homeowner's $135 tax bill for district buildings. Seese and Davis say that if Saginaw Township closed its doors to out-of-district students, a yearly loss of $6 million would force the school board to sharply cut teachers and programs.     

Jersevic counters that the district could close one of its six elementary buildings with fewer pupils, while saving millions of dollars with reduced staff.    

"We would be paying under this proposal to improve our parking lots to accommodate schools of choice students who drive to our buildings or get dropped off. I don't want to pay money for that," he says.     

 "If our board would listen and stop all of this choice, they could put 5 mills up there and get it passed. But when one in six kids is not even from our own district, that's ridiculous."    

Jersevic adds that out-district students have caused state test scores to decrease, asserting that "It is a shame that Saginaw Township has slipped from far above average to only slightly ahead." He also points to increased discipline problems.       

 Seese answers that in-district students have average grade points of 2.7, compared to 2.6 for those who cross boundaries. He adds that in-district pupils actually break rules slightly more often than their out-of-district peers.          

"Neither difference is anywhere near significant," the superintendent says.

A Connection, or a Disconnect?

Lincoln and other millage supporters use a clear-cut approach when speaking to community groups or campaigning door-to-door.      

They start by sticking to their chosen facts.
They point out that they no longer are asking for a tax increase, but a basic renewal. They state that the 2.25-mill rate for buildings is by far the lowest among Saginaw County's 13 districts. They explain that roofs are leaking and that paint is peeling. They assert that the $40 million is a 'bare bones' amount compared to the original $104 million, which would have paid for such comparative luxuries as a new high school auditorium and for insulated walkways between
White Pine Middle's various buildings.    

They address the school choice topic only if the resident chooses to raise the question as a reason for opposition.    

 "Schools of choice is a completely separate issue and is not tie-barred to the bond," Davis says.     

 Scharich answers that tax backers are not facing reality.             

"All you have to do is consider the comments of people, even on the district's own blog (at stcs.org/bond), and you can see that the two issues are indeed related," he says.          

Millage supporters also wrongly perceive that all 'No' voters are negative. Scharich asserts that the district indeed should raise money, but that it should go for new buildings rather than 'piecemeal' or 'Band-Aid' repairs.
Lincoln responds that opponents in 2006 complained about plans for new structures.     

"People made it loud and clear that they want us to work with the buildings we have now," she says. "New schools were unacceptable to the majority of people."

'Hidden' Ethnic Concerns

Millage campaigner Jay Kahn says demographics are sort of an unspoken issue.        

"I didn't want to bring that up," Kahn says, "but when I knock on doors, some people tell me that they don't want 'those' kids’ in the district. When they talk about 'those kids', we all know who they're talking about."            

Parent volunteer Darlene Robinson also starts with basics. She says the first step is simply to inform unaware parents that an election indeed will take place on May 6. She emphasizes school security, noting that new entrances will be far more visible to central school offices.         

Then she asserts that when confronted with choice critics, she sometimes sees a race factor.           

"I would have hoped that we had come far enough where the color of a person's skin would not matter, and when I hear some of those remarks, I'm ashamed, shocked, and saddened," she says.

"I consider all of the children in the schools to be my children. It has been more than 40 years since Dr. Martin Luther King died, and still here in 2008, it seems that the first thing we notice is the color of a person's skin. I don't know how to fix that. I would have hoped that would have changed by now."         

 If any individual might take offense, Lisa Hall would be the one. She is the first member of African American heritage to serve on the school board. Still, she wants to concentrate on the tax question and not the schools of choice dynamics, even while Jersevic and others cite choice as the reason for their 'no' votes on millages.           

"The issues of the millage and school choice should be totally separate," Hall says.           

"It's important to think about what this bond would do for the school district. We will restore and secure our building structures, in order to ensure the best environment for students, teachers, administrators and all the staff. It’s an obligation of the school district to provide the necessities. At the same time, it's important to note that this is a renewal, to keep the present millage at 2.25 mills, not an increase."      

What about the schools of choice critics?       

" I believe these people have their minds made up," says Hall, echoing Judi Lincoln's thoughts. "The district has done an excellent job of explaining why school choice is a good thing. When I encounter someone who has their mind made up otherwise, I figure it's time to move on." 

Township Demographics

Saginaw Township planners in January provided their annual report on trends and the future outlook. They reported that the population skyrocketed from 5,000 in the middle 1950s to about 40,000 during the early 1980s, and has held steady since then. They predicted 'slow growth' through 2020.   

 A key section was in the middle of the report: "Inner ring suburbs typically include a decrease in median income, an increase in poverty level, and an increase in racial and ethnic diversity."      

Change already is reflected. Whites still are predominant in Saginaw Township as 88 percent of the population, but the count is down from 94 percent in1990.           

The White population in the schools is 73 percent. In other words, the schools are more than twice as integrated as the township as a whole.
However, the main reason is not schools of choice, but rather that ethnic minority families have moved into the district.          

Saginaw Township has the county's second-highest average age, trailing only Frankenmuth. Planners say this creates a gap with an older White population of senior citizens, combined with a young influx of minorities.        

White families with a single mother average about 8 percent, compared to 18 percent among Hispanics and 30 percent among Blacks. This cultural difference is rooted in historical factors that include poverty and oppression.         

 As one cultural analogy on a typical school morning, White observers may ask why Black mothers are dropping off their kids on a street curbside instead of entering the parking lot. Blacks may answer that they hesitate to enter because they wonder whether or not they feel accepted in the township.     

 In the City of Saginaw, the river has served as a longtime ethnic dividing line, although the near West Side is becoming deeply integrated. The Saginaw Township outlook notes that no similar 'geographic barrier or division' exists, raising hopes that the suburb may avoid some of the city's long-time frictions.       

"People speak of a global economy," says Davis, who has served in the district since 1990.
"Here in the township, we have more of a global school system."

Voice of a Student

In response to critics, the school board last month voted to cancel out-of-district enrollments in grades 7 through 12 starting in August. Students already enrolled are allowed to stay until they graduate, under state law.          

Board members said they were attempting to show that they were listening to all aspects of the community. Superintendent Seese went along, even though he would have preferred to continue open enrollment for 7th through 12th graders who have younger siblings in elementary grades.        

 Seese estimates that as a result of the new restriction, the district will lose 60 secondary students in August. At $7,400 per head, the loss translates to $444,000.         

Schools of choice critics such as Jersevic and Scharich say the board's step is nowhere near sufficient to resolve the issue. But on the flip side, some observers indicate that the board didn't need any restrictions in the first place.    

Heritage High senior Lindsay Robinson, daughter of Darlene Robinson, is a non-voting student delegate to the school board. She says her school experience has been enriched because of the mix of non-district students whom Rol Jersevic has described as 'aliens' at board meetings.
"'Aliens' - that personally offends me. I’m embarrassed for him when he says those things," notes Lindsay.       

"In third grade (social studies), we learned about the meaning of community and it isn't just us. It's also the people who surround us. That's why we are known as Saginaw Township Community Schools," she says.      

"I've had an opportunity to learn about students from different areas and different cultures. You don't see in-district kids sitting with other in-district kids, or schools of choice kids sitting with other schools of choice kids. It's not like the schools of choice kids have orange polka dots. It's all intermixed. Many of my friends I couldn't tell you whether they are in-district kids or choice kids.

They're just my friends."

Scharich says he understands the teen's explanation, but he is not changing his mind.          

"I don't disagree that we need to have a diverse community, but that has nothing to do with the school system itself," Scharich says. "I don't feel that it's my responsibility as a taxpayer to pay for that. From schools of choice, the burden on Saginaw Township is only going to continue to grow."

A Blogger's Lament

As Scharich stated, a blog at stcs.org/bond contains many remarks that link the tax questions with schools of choice. This is true even though district officials have deemed that the two topics are not related.      

One posting from April 1 draws a clear-cut connection. The author states that she is a City of
Saginaw resident who lives one block outside of township boundaries, and that she was interested in sending her 5-year-old daughter to township schools. She writes, in part, as follows:        

"I came upon this blog. I was quite taken aback. I honestly had no idea that there was such a gaping chasm between 'city' and 'township' and I must say that I was very disappointed with some of the comments. Although, much as I hate to admit it, I will say that those comments accomplished their goal. I will not be sending my child to township schools."     

"She is not a problem child and has never been expelled from anything and would have made a very nice addition to your student body. But quite honestly, we do not want to come where we are not welcome."     

"I say that out of sadness. It makes me very sad to know that township parents feel so strongly about keeping us out that they would resort to voting down a bond proposal to make this kind of a statement. To deprive thousands of your own children of better and healthier learning conditions because of a few hundred 'unwelcome' ones seems ludicrous.          

"I get a very cold feeling from this blog, a feeling that smacks of prejudice. I'm concerned that, should my child go to your schools, she would somehow be singled out as one of those 'Schools of Choice' Kids. ’ There is a grave risk of the sentiment contained in this blog trickling down through the children."        

"Don't we all live in Saginaw County? Isn't this a community of people rather than a bunch of little villages? We should be working together to produce the most exceptional and well-rounded human beings that we can."

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