Oceana County property owners will pay an extra $1 million per year for ISD
When school begins this week, Oceana County property owners will be paying $1.02 million more a year in taxes thanks to a school district merger that was approved without a public vote.
A few weeks after school ended in June, board members from the Mason-Lake Intermediate School District and the Oceana ISD agreed to a merger. Taxpayers in Oceana will now have to pay the higher millage rate assessed in Mason-Lake.
According to the Oceana County treasurer, the higher millage rate will cost Oceana County property owners $150 for every $100,000 in taxable value. Residents will start paying it in July.
The districts escaped a public vote by using Public Act 451 in Michigan's Revised School Code. It allows intermediate school districts with fewer than five individual school districts to merge with a neighboring ISD. If the merger involves a tax increase, the ISDs can ask property owners in a public vote or handle the matter before their individual ISD boards. The Mason-Lake and Oceana ISD boards made the decision themselves and in June both unanimously approved the merger.
Michigan law requires ISD boards to hold a public meeting before a vote. The two ISDs held their meeting the night the Oceana Board approved the merger. Mason-Lake held its meeting the next day. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy acquired video of the meeting in which ISD board members refused to answer questions posed by taxpayers in attendance.
Unlike local school district board members who are selected through a public vote, ISD board members in these districts are chosen at large by the individual school boards within their district. The Oceana ISD is comprised of the Shelby, Hart and Walkerville school districts.
The Hart School Board wanted the public to vote on the merger.
"There is only one reason you don't go to a vote and that's because you don't think it's going to pass," said Jeff Gebhart, a Hart school board member
In his public presentation, Mason-Lake ISD Superintendent Larry Lloyd promised that most of the millage increase money will be sent back to Oceana, but the ISD will get to chose how it will be allocated. Two of the Oceana school districts, Shelby and Walkerville, will get a much-needed infusion of cash, according to Lloyd. Shelby and Walkerville have experienced declining student counts, which reduces total state aid.
Lloyd promoted the merger as a method of consolidating resources and possibly saving money. The Mason-Lake-Oceana ISD will maintain an office in Oceana, but all but one employee is now working at the facility in Mason-Lake, about 30 miles away. Several former Oceana ISD employees are now earning higher salaries after having been absorbed into the higher paying union contract at Mason Lake.
"I don’t think the district ever said it was going to save money," said Rick Hodges, an Oceana ISD board member who approved the merger.
Explaining why the boards chose to do an end-run around taxpayers, Hodges said it was a matter of improving services in a short period of time.
"Because one-third of our districts were not willing to talk to us, we were not comfortable taking this to the public without an understanding from the Hart district where we were coming from," he said.
"This is a perfect example of what’s happening nationally at the local level," he said. "When you have a board that thinks it knows more what to do with your money and your kids than you do."
He said he would have preferred that the districts identified inefficiencies and directed savings to more student services.