Preschool tax off the table
An effort to place a millage on the November ballot to fund early childhood education in Leelanau County may lack legal authority, and will likely be withdrawn.
Members of a non-profit group closely aligned with the Leelanau Childrens’ Center that runs preschools in Leland and Northport would be breaking new ground should their plan ever be implemented. The Leelanau Early Child Development Commission (LECDC), which recently gained nonprofi t status and is chaired by county commissioner David Marshall, was seeking to use a mix of private and public funding to offer “scholarships” worth between $6,000 and $8,000 to parents seeking preschool education for their children.
“I don’t believe there is any possible way (the LECDC) board will approve it for the November ballot,” Marshall said. “It’s theoretically possible, but it isn’t going to happen.”
The proposal may have received enough votes from commissioners to be placed on the ballot, as Marshall was joined by commissioner Jean Watkoski on the LECDC, and commissioner Richard Schmuckal said at the County Board’s June meeting that he would leave approval up to voters.
But the proposal ran into a legal snag when reviewed by attorney David G. Stoker, whose law firm Cohl, Stoker & Toskey represents the county.
“The county does not have authority to run such an education program, and thus would not be authorized to either levy a tax for that purpose or expend county tax dollars for such a purpose,” Stoker wrote in a shortened legal opinion. He is working on a more extensive opinion for the County Board, according to county administrator Chet Janik.
Janik, who retired as superintendent of Charlevoix schools earlier this year to work for Leelanau County, said the proposal has been withdrawn from the agenda of the County Board’s “executive committee” meeting set for Tuesday.
“There are serious concerns about the legality of the proposal as it’s currently structured,” Janik said. “The board and I had questions about the finances and structure. But the group has not officially made the decision whether they are going forward or not, and they have not provided any structure to the County Board yet.”
Commissioner Melinda Lautner was critical of a plan to levy a tax to pay for preschool when the early education group made a presentation seeking a county-wide millage at the June 12 commissioners’ meeting. Documents provided by the group indicated that a .52 property tax would be needed to implement their plan.
Lautner, however, said the extra tax would drive away rather than attract young families to Leelanau County. Her mind has not changed.
“You could have young families moving into our county in droves for free early education ... for free everything. But we can’t afford all of that,” she said Thursday morning.
She added that such a program should have never been brought before the County Board, saying it “should be a function of schools.”
The responsibility for child rearing, she continued, should remain with parents.
“In the bigger picture, this is going after the symptom and not the cause. They’ve kind of thrown their hands up and said parents can’t take care of their kids, so we’ll take care of them for you,” she said.
“I understand their passion for what they want to do, but that is not the solution.”
Marshall said members of the LECDC remain passionate about early childhood education. He does not expect their efforts to wane with news that the group cannot work through the county to achieve its goals.
“There are a lot of ways to skin this cat, and it’s a cat that needs to be skinned,” he said.