How will pandemic affect school bond votes?

WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — Voters in several West Michigan school districts will cast ballots Tuesday on some big-ticket improvements.

Along with a number of operating millage renewals, bond requests ranging from $88 million in Caledonia to just under $14 million in Godwin Heights will be on Kent County ballots.

“They’re all very needed things,” Godwin Heights School Superintendent William Fetterhoff said.

If voters say yes, Fetterhoff said much of the $13.9 million will go toward building upgrades, like new windows and roofs. He said the improvements that could save the district money in the long run.

“We are not going for bright and shiny or any upgrades that aren’t necessities,” Fetterhoff said.

Godwin Heights‘ $14 million request is the smallest of the bond requests.

In Caledonia, the district is asking for $88 million to replace an elementary school and build a new athletic facility.

In Byron Center, voters will be asked to approve an $80.2 million bond for a new elementary school and other improvements.

Kenowa Hills Public Schools is asking voters to approve a $67 million bond to build and furnish additional facilities.

Northview Public Schools also wants voter approval to borrow money, over $36.7 million for buildings and other improvements.

“The bond issue was developed with communitywide input to address critical facility and site needs that cannot be addressed through current funding alone,” Northview Superintendent Scott Korpak said. “These needs are vital to the safety and well-being of our students and essential to continued academic growth. “

Turnout for spring elections, where ballots tend to be limited to spending requests, is always low. It’s one of the reasons many school districts pick the May date: supporters turn out and detractors often stay home. While some districts decided to delay votes, others decided to proceed.

“We are asking and encouraging everyone in our community to vote absentee by mailing in their ballot selections early,” Caledonia Superintendent Dr. Dedrick Martin said.

“From the earliest stages of the bond process and in light of the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the district has increased communications to the community on registration surrounding absentee ballots,” Northview’s Korpak said. “Additionally, all of our area townships have developed an in-person voting process to ensure the safety of our residents.”

Only Kenowa Hills’ proposal will raise taxes, with an increase of about $26 per year on a home with a market value of $200,000.

“Support for this proposal would create a boost to our local economy, as much of the $67 million over the course of 10 years would be invested right back into West Michigan businesses through the many construction trades that will be completing the work,” Kenowa Hills Superintendent Gerald Hopkins said.

In the other districts, none of the requests will add anything to annual tax bills. The votes allow the district to borrow more money and extend the time it takes to pay off debt.
But what about those voters who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic?   

“Uncertainty is always a real problem when you want people to deal with issues related to money, particularly around schools,” longtime campaign consultant David Doyle said.

Michigan’s unemployment rate is hovering around 22% because of closures meant to slow the spread of coronavirus. Doyle said that and other economic concerns could discourage some voters.

“I’ve seen these elections where it won’t cost anything, but generally you still get 40%, 45% still voting no,” Doyle said.

He said getting a yes vote depends on how well districts have communicated with voters the need for the funds and how those funds will be spent. It’s a matter of trust.

“That’s what we have to ride on, is the reputation that we have and the transparency we’ve had with the community,” Godwin Height’s Fetterhoff said.


Michigan Voter Information Center