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Getting Detroiters to the polls: School leaders launch campaign aimed at crucial August vote

A man fills out his ballot at a polling station during the midterm elections Nov. 4, 2014 in Detroit.
A man fills out his ballot at a polling station during the midterm elections Nov. 4, 2014 in Detroit.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images

School officials are launching an aggressive, boots-on-the-ground campaign to educate Detroiters about the Aug. 4 vote on whether to renew an operating millage for Detroit Public Schools. The millage, which is set to expire in 2022, generates $70 million annually to help pay off old debt.

The district is planning to hire a campaign manager to lead the education effort, creating campaign materials, and hosting a series of community engagement meetings.

The 18-mill operating millage affects non-homestead property, which includes industrial, commercial and rental property. Homeowners are not affected by the millage, but if it isn’t renewed, DPS creditors can seek a court judgment to force payment. The judgment would impact all property owners, including homeowners, and create another financial burden for Detroit residents, a third of whom live below the poverty line

The revenue from the millage goes to Detroit Public Schools, which exists primarily to pay off debt. The operating millage will be paying off district debt until 2027, while a separate capital debt millage will be paying off debt until 2052. DPS is separate from the three-and-a-half-year-old Detroit Public Schools Community District that exists solely to educate students and is funded through the state school aid fund. The split was part of a sweeping plan to resolve the massive debt that had crippled DPS.

Millage renewals are generally considered routine elections. But in this case, the district is bracing for opposition by some in the community who see voting for the millage as an endorsement of years of state control and the legacy of emergency management.

“There will be influential folks out there who will be actively voting against the millage,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said during a school board study session Saturday.

With the exception of several years, the city’s school district was under state control from 1999 to 2016. This period was marked by turmoil, including multiple school closures, stymied academic progress, and an acceleration of the district’s fiscal woes. Many Detroiters fought against state control, saying it violated their voting rights. During the early years of state control, there was no elected board. And during the latter years, when emergency managers had control, the elected board had no power.

The district regained much of its control via the 2016 legislative agreement. However, it is still under the oversight of the Detroit Financial Review Commission, which must approve the district’s budget, union contracts and other major contracts.

That may be changing soon. The commission is expected to vote in June on whether to release the Detroit district from its oversight.

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