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Rural school districts look for a passing grade on bond proposals

Max Johnston
Interlochen Public Radio
Superintendent Steve Prissel has been working on a school bond proposal for McBain Rural Agricultural School.

Dozens of school districts across the state will put bond proposals to voters next month. They are asking residents to pay for improvements in schools, but in some small communities in northern Michigan, a tax hike for your schools can be a tough sell.

McBain is a small town in Missaukee County, and it’s calling card is dairy farming. There’s a crop or farming supply store wherever you look. McBain is so synonymous with farming that it's school is named after it: McBain Rural Agricultural School. It's right across the street from a feed store.

Steve Prissel, district superintendent, says McBain is proud of it's farmers.

"You're definitely gonna see a lot of tractors and a lot of hard workers," he says.


Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
McBain Rural Agricultural School has more than 1,000 students from three different counties


McBain Rural Agricultural School has about 1,050 students in grades K-12. Unlike most other districts, McBain is packed in to one building.

"High school students mentor the elementary students, and we're able to share some staff," Prissel says. "We're able to be pretty efficient operations-wise."

Prissel says the district prides itself on that efficiency, but they have room to improve.

For the past year, the school board has been working on a bond proposal that would ask residents to pay for some external and internal changes to the building. They put a similar one to voters last May, but that failed by more than 200 votes. Prissel says that bond had some fluff, like a plan to move some softball fields and to add two new classrooms.

Those ideas have been scrapped, and he says the new proposal is more "nuts and bolts."

"It's nothing extravagant," Prissel says. "We're talking about roofs and boilers and buses and computers."

Nuts and bolts

The new proposal is for $14.4 million over a 10-year span. Better computers, LED lights and a new roof would be some clearly visible improvements.

"As far as being in front of a computer, they're really comfortable," Prissel says looking at students in a computer lab. "[But] those are pretty old computers right there."


Credit McBain Rural Agricultural School
The district is passing out flyers to show residents the differences between last years bond proposal and this years.

Some of the other changes taxpayers won't see. The district wants to upgrade and replace some old boilers and A/C equipment in the school's basement.

"This is how we keep everybody warm and dry," Prissel says, pointing to some pipes.

Prissel says the board is still mulling over the date the proposal will go to a vote. Right now, they’re aiming for November. The school district scaled back the proposal to improve its chance of passing.

Jennifer Smith, director of Government Relations at the Michigan Association of School Boards, says small communities can have a hard time getting voters to pay for improvements in their schools. She says demographics and property values can factor in to these school bonds.

"If you go into a low socioeconomic district and ask for a really high tax increase, you’re probably not going to get it," Smith says.

Convincing voters

Last November, voters in the small village of Mesick voted down a school bond for the third straight time.

Cindy Short lives in Mesick and voted 'no.'

"Because I’m a senior, and I don’t have any little kids in school," Short says. "And I can’t afford any more taxes."

But other voters felt differently. Debbie Stanton voted 'yes' for all three proposals.

"Because education is the number one thing you can give kids," Stanton said.

Credit Morgan Springer / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Despite signs around Mesick supporting the school bond, it failed for the third time.

Steve Prissel says McBain listened to the community after their last bond failed and took that into consideration on the new proposal.

To get the $14.4 million, the district wants to double McBain’s millage rate to 3.8 mills. The state average is 5.25 mills.

Prissel says he’s optimistic about the new bond proposal, but he's not naive.

"At the end of the day, you're asking for people to spend more money on their local school, which I think McBain will," Prissel says. "But when you look at your area, and you look at the farming community, it's pretty tough right now."

State records show that bonds in rural communities pass or fail on a whim. Ludington, Benzie and Kingsley are just a few other school districts in northern Michigan that will have bond proposals on the ballot May 7.

This story was featured in Points North, you can find the full episode here.

Max came to IPR in 2017 as an environmental intern. In 2018, he returned to the station as a reporter and quickly took on leadership roles as Interim News Director and eventually Assignment Editor. Before joining IPR, Max worked as a news director and reporter at Michigan State University's student radio station WDBM. In 2018, he reported on a Title IX dispute with MSU in his story "Prompt, Thorough and Impartial." His work has also been heard on Michigan Radio, WDBM and WKAR in East Lansing and NPR.
Morgan Springer is a contributing editor and producer at Interlochen Public Radio. She previously worked for the New England News Collaborative as the host/producer of NEXT, the weekly show which aired on six public radio station in the region.