Note: Yes, I've already posted this twice, but figured I'd do it one more time just as a last hurrah. I promise this is the last time I'll post it, really! :)On Tuesday, while all eyes were on North Carolina, Wisconsin and Indiana, something very, very special happened here in the quiet, affluent community of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
If that name rings a bell with you, it's probably because Bloomfield Hills is where none other than Mitt Romney grew up. It's the home of Cranbrook, the private school that Romney attended and which was derided by Eminem in his epic "rap battle" scene at the end of "8 Mile". It's the hometown of guys like William Davidson (Detroit Pistons owner and billionaire), John DeLorean, Joe Dumars, Sergei Federov, Aretha Franklin, Gordie Howe, Robin Williams, Steve Yzerman, Chad Smith, ultra-conservative economist David Littmann of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (a right-wing think tank) and yes, George W. Romney (Mitt's father and the former Governor of the state).
It also happens to be where I grew up and where I moved back to with my family a few years ago.
Needless to say, this is NOT exactly a progressive area. It's very white, very wealthy, and quite Republican. The city proper went for Tea Partier Rocky Razkowski over incumbent Democrat Gary Peters 63% to 37% in 2010. The school district as a whole votes Republican about 54% to 46%.
I mention the school district because the other thing about Bloomfield Hills is that we happen to have 2 aging high schools, Andover and Lahser, which have been arch-rivals for 50-odd years.
Bloomfield Hills doesn't have much to offer families of school-age children besides our school system, which consistently ranks among the highest in the nation and has for decades. We don't have a downtown; we don't have a community center of any note. What we have is our school system, and for decades we treated it as the crown jewel of our community.
10 years ago, thanks to budget cuts (especially Michigan's infamous "Proposal A", which completely screwed up how Michigan's public schools are financed), Michigan's economic recession (which hit years before the rest of the country) and an aging population, combined with the buildings being over 50 years old and well past their usable lifespan (unlike some structures, they weren't built to last centuries), it was determined that there was simply no way that the district could continue to afford running both schools.
Enrollment, which had held steady at around 1,300 each, had dropped to below 2,300 total, and was expected to continue to decline. The poorly-laid out buildings still had the original HVAC units on the roofs, still had poor airflow and lighting, and still had single-pane floor-to-ceiling windows down entire hallways. The cost of maintenance and utilities was astronomical, and it was becoming difficult to justify having teachers for classes that only had a handful of students at either location.
So, in 2003, a plan was developed to combine the schools into a single, new campus complex. Unfortunately, the district had become so used to the school rivalry that it simply couldn't come to terms with the concept of getting rid of one of them. This led to a rather strange plan to have TWO high schools--each with their own football team, administration, etc.--located on a single campus. The plan would have cost $145 million. It was so hated that a "Vote No" political organization was formed to rally against it, and it never even made it to the ballot; the "Vote No" group even got one of their own members onto the school board.
In 2007, the buildings were 4 years older, and the high school student population had dropped down to less than 2,100. A second plan made it onto the ballot which would tear down and rebuild both high schools from scratch, for a total cost of $121 million.
The May special election bond request had a good turnout, but was roundly defeated, 54% to 46%. The "Vote No" school board member proved to be a rather unstable nutjob who, among other things (I'm told) pushed hard for prayer in schools. Fortunately, she lost her own re-election campaign, but the "Vote No" group started to lose it's bearings and began mutating into an irrational Tea Party-type of outfit.
By 2010, enrollment had declined still further, to under 2,000 total. The housing meltdown had devastated property values and the property tax base. The district had to cut staff and started shuttling students and teachers back and forth between the two schools to save money on teachers (but spending $150,000/year on bus costs to do so). The school board and superintendent came up with a third plan, which would call for a single, brand-new high school on a single campus. The cost would have been $97 million.
Unfortunately, the superintendent and school board at the time did a simply terrible job of actually communicating the plan to the residents. No schematics, no concept art, and little in the way of budgeting information. Plus, the wording of the ballot question was an extremely confusing 2-part question. It failed again, 55% to 45% (I even voted against it myself).
The superintendent left and a new one was brought in. At the same time, 4 of the 7 school board members were replaced. Both the new board and new superintendent vowed to FINALLY get the high school issue resolved properly--town hall meetings, focus groups, consultants, and above all else, absolute transparency and involvement by the community. They did this in spades, scheduling all of the above and more to find out what the right solution was for the Bloomfield Hills School District.
However, in 2011, the "Vote No" group went completely off the rails. They launched an ill-fated, mean-spirited and utterly illogical Recall campaign against the ENTIRE school board--not just the 3 incumbents, but against the 4 brand-new members who hadn't had ANYTHING to do with the previous plans. They also kept blaming the new superintendent for mistakes clearly made by his predecessor and the prior board.
The founder of the original "Vote No" group, who had already disavowed his own organization, started to work WITH the new superintendent and board to get it right. A separate organization, One Bloomfield United, sprouted up to support the new administration and also work with them to finally get the right plan at the right price. Thankfully, the recall effort failed.
In the meantime, the buildings were now almost a solid decade older and more worn than they were when this process started. Enrollment had declined even further, to around 1,800 total. Only 20% of the district residents now had children in the public schools.
Which brings us to 2012. A new, final, 4th plan was put forth by the new administration: A single, 2/3 new, 1/3 renovated, modern, energy-efficient building with natural lighting, healthy airflow, green technologies, flexible workspaces and logical layout. The total bond request: $59 million.
The community received TOTAL involvement in the process, transparency in the details, and fantastic communication of every conceivable aspect of the plan, including a detailed transition plan for the students during the 2-year development/construction period. Best of all, our total school tax millage would actually DECREASE by 20% even with the new bond, because of 2 existing millages dropping off at the same time.
This, as you probably guessed, drove the Vote No group, which had now completed its' mutation into a virulent anti-tax-under-any-circumstances mini-Tea Party, absolutely nuts. They ranted, they raved, they lied. The fact that our school taxes (already among the lowest in the area) would drop 20% wasn't enough for them; if the bond failed, they reasoned, it would drop even MORE, down to an almost absurdly low 0.75 mills.
OBU (One Bloomfield United, the Vote YES organization) which I'm proud to be the webmaster for, ran a near-perfect, positive, inclusive and factual campaign. The founder of the original "No" group not only joined OBU but offered up his business establishment for our meetings.
It's important to note at this point that the OBU, the YES group, is composed in large part of REPUBLICANS. Fiscally conservative they might be, but they understand the importance of good public schools, especially in our community which doesn't have much else to appeal to new home buyers.
And so, an epic battle was joined, primarily between the 20% families-with-school-age-children and the 80% of retirees-whose-kids-were-already-out-of-the-system, with some others (kids in private schools, etc) in between.
The "Vote No" group went nuts. They lied about what would happen if the plan failed, claiming that the two existing schools would remain exactly as they were (actually, the school board had already voted to merge the schools into a single administration, with a new name, new mascot and so on regardless; the only question was whether it would be 1 high school on 1 campus in a new building or 1 high school on 2 campuses in old, crappy buildings).
They lied about the tax implications. They lied about the traffic plans, They lied about how elaborate the new construction would be. They harassed, badgered and threatened local businesses who dared to openly endorse the YES vote.
Two week before the election, the Vote No group brought in David Littmann, former Bloomfield Hills resident, former Comerica economist, Mackinac Public Policy Guru and Ultra-Conservative Economist Extraordinaire, to ride into town to speak out against the bond issue, even though he didn't know a damned thing about it, didn't have a clue what shape the buildings were in and hadn't even lived in the area for over a decade.
He's extremely respected in conservative financial circles and used to live in the area (I even was in the Cub Scouts with/went to high school with his son...one of the very high schools we're talking about), so it makes sense that they brought him in--but financially conservative members of our group who hold him in high esteem were severely disappointed by his lack of having done even the most basic research about the topic at hand. He openly admitted that he hadn't "reviewed the millage materials", hadn't visited the schools in decades and didn't have any idea what sort of condition they were in, and so on.
One day before the election, they brought out the Big Guns: An 11th-hour ad blitz by Americans for Prosperity. You may know them better as the Koch Brothers. That's right: The Kansas-based oil billionaires decided to sink some pocket change ($10,000, to be precise...I just pulled up their "late contributions" report) into a high school bond issue in Michigan.
Tuesday, thanks to the relentless efforts of hundreds of dedicated Vote YES volunteers, I'm happy to report that the YES vote WON, turning a 45/55 loss just 18 months earlier into a stunning 61% / 39% VICTORY on a sunny May afternoon.
Bear in mind that May elections for single-issue school bond questions are the sort of thing that normally get perhaps 5% turnout. We hit 41%.
That's right: We just kicked the Brothers right in their Kochs.
For the numbers junkies out there, here's some fun facts:
--In November 2010, the YES vote lost 45% to 55%, by over 2,000 votes out of almost 20,000 cast.
--In May 2012 we WON 61% to 39%, by over 2,800 votes out of almost 13,000 cast. That's a 16% swing in only 18 months.
--In November 2010, absentee ballots (mostly senior citizens opposed to the bond) made up 40% of the total votes; they went 63% No to 37% YES.
--In May 2012, absentees still made up the same 40% of the total...but went 53% YES to 47% No.
--Last time, YES only won a handful of precincts; this time it won 26 out of 30 precincts, and only lost the other 4 by a handful
--Last time YES lost every single precinct in absentees; this time the absentees went YES in 15 out of 30
...and so on. Full results are posted on the OBU site if you're really interested (most likely only those familiar with the area would be).
But here's the best and most important part:
THIS WASN'T A PARTISAN BATTLE. Many of my co-volunteers are conservative Republicans, and they know quite well that I'm a pretty liberal Democrat. None of that mattered. We ALL cared about our public schools, and worked together to pull it off.
IT CAN STILL HAPPEN, EVEN TODAY.
And I can now look forward to my son attending a healthy, modern high school that doesn't have rain and animal feces falling through the ceiling.
Check it all out at http://www.onebloomfieldunited.com