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The 2020-2021 school year will be weird

(Note: I update this occasionally as I see new stuff.)

I'm working on our PTO's budget for next year, and I have questions.

Will be able to hold our usual events? Will there be field trips? (The PTO usually pays for field trips, and field trip expenses (especially busing) are a big part of the budget.)

My ramblings follow. The short version: we don't know. But it will probably not be a normal school year, even if it does include some in-person instruction.

I see the same headlines as everyone, but as much as possible I'd rather base our decisions on official recommendations--the school system, the state, etc. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of that yet, so I'm making some of my own guesses too.

One place to start is with the state's MI Safe Start Plan. It has six phases, from "1: uncontrolled growth", to "6: post-pandemic". Each phase has its own restrictions, criteria that must be met before we're considered in that phase. We can also move backwards through phases, for example if numbers start to trend up again.

Phase 6 essentially requires the pandemic to be over: "Community spread is not expected to return (e.g., because of a vaccine) and the economy is fully reopened." As far as I can tell from news reports, we're unlikely to reach phase 6 during the 2020-2021 school year. (See, for example, this New York Times article on the vaccine outlook, which reports optimism from vaccine research, but skepticism about our ability to scale to the production required to reach herd immunity through vaccination this year.)

So, realistically we'll likely be in phases 1 through 5. Phase 5 is the first phase to permit in-person K-12 education.

Phase 5 is still subject to social distancing ("maintain a six-foot distance from others when outdoors/in public"), requires face coverings, and requires gatherings be of "limited-size groups with social distancing" (limits unspecified).

Running in-person elementary school under those requirements sounds challenging.

West Bloomfield may be the only school district to have released a plan so far, reported on here. Students will attend school two days a week. Half will attend Monday and Tuesday, the other half Thursday and Friday, and Wednesday will be used for cleaning. This allows classes of half the size, for better social distancing. Also from that article:

Education officials who spoke to Bridge over the past few weeks regarding fall plans said schools are planning for multiple scenarios, from traditional school with facemasks and extra cleaning, to hybrid plans like West Bloomfield unveiled that limit the number of students in school buildings at any one time.

Alternating school attendance days is one plan being discussed; another is having half of students attend school in mornings, and half in afternoons.

The AAPS met Wednesday night: video, slides.

Flexibility is a big theme from that meeting. They expect a combination of "modified face-to-face", "virtual", and "blended" instruction, and hope to make the transition between those three as seamless as they can, to accommodate both changes in the public health system and varying family preferences. (They expect some families will choose to stay home even when not officially required to.)

It sounds like the hope to announce more in mid July. Probably we should meet to revise our budget after that.

They mentioned social events and field trips only to say that they understood they were important, that they would be impacted, and that they didn't know how yet.


Some more resources that I ran across:

The Bridge also has a list of colleges that have announced plans for the fall. Many are planning in-person classes, but I haven't tried to look into what that means in detail.

The CDC's considerations for schools.

This might be a source of links of plans from other states.

Other countries might provide more examples of what school reopening could look like:

UNESCO says 70% of students are out of school worldwide.



June 15 update: Michigan schools lean toward returning kids to classrooms amid coronavirus: more schools are considering in-person 5-day-a-week instruction, but coronavirus numbers are currently going in the wrong direction so this may be contentious.

Zoning and master planning

MSU has an article explaining the difference between a zoning map and a master plan.

Bascially: the master plan explains goals for our community, and what we'd like to do, but it's the zoning map that is the actual law. Even when the planning process requires review against the master plan, my understanding is that that review is mostly just advisory. If the project otherwise meets zoning and code, it probably can't be rejected just because of the master plan.

Ann Arbor's master plan is actually a collection of documents; see the City Master Plan page for links.

You can look at the zoning map here. Or, there are more ways to get it (like as pdfs) on the city's zoning administration page. If you just want to look up the zoning of a single property, simplest is probably to a "properties" search on etrakit.

But then you need to know what the zones mean. The definitive reference for that is the code.

Bond millages

So, the stuff I said here and here about millages doesn't really apply to bond millages, which are different in a few ways.

First, when we approve a bond millages, we don't approve a millage rate (like "1.5 mills"), we approve a total amount of borrowing; see for example the ballot language for the 2020 AAPS bond:

Shall the Public Schools of the City of Ann Arbor, County of Washtenaw, Michigan, borrow the principal sum of not to exceed One Billion Dollars ($1,000,000,000) and issue its general obligation unlimited tax bonds for the purpose of defraying the cost of making the following improvements....

So they're basically asking to borrow up to a billion dollars, and future millage rates will be determined by whatever's required to pay back the loan. (The ballot language has some more details, in particular estimates of likely millage rates.)

I said before that new construction brings new property tax revenue, but that isn't the case for bond millages--the total revenue is determined by what's needed to pay back the bonds. So, new construction in the AAPS district just spreads those payments over more taxpayers, decreasing the millage rate a little.

Of course, new residents in the AAPS district may also require new school expenses, so may require new bonds. The decrease due to new taxpayers should approximately balance out the increase due to new bonds: when we add more students to a geographical area, the cost per student should stay about the same.

(Except, that's not quite true: for example, the more students you have in the same area, the more students you can serve with a single bus and a single bus route, so the cheaper busing is per student. So, there's probably a slight decline in per student costs as you increase the number of students. I wonder how much it is?)

Bond millages aren't subject to Headlee rollbacks, for obvious reasons--we don't want to default on the bonds.

If you look up property tax information for a property in the property tax database, you can see an example of a bond millage on the "AAPS DEBT" line:


Another week, another A2CA session, this time, at Ann Arbor's Wastewater Treatment plant.

If you ask Google Maps for transit directions there, it tells you to take the 3 to Geddes and Dixboro, walk along Geddes to Parker Mill County Park, then walk south through the park to the plant.

So, that's what I did. The walk through the park, alongside Fleming Creek, was lovely. At the end of it, I could see the treatment plant--just on the other side of some fences and a railroad track.

So much for Google Maps.

So, I walked west along the path, across a bridge over the Huron River, to Old Dixboro Rd, where I thought I saw a railroad crossing. Alas, it was behind a locked gate. By this time it was getting dark, and I was getting discouraged, so I texted a fellow A2CA participant for help. That was when my phone died.

So, it was cold, and dark, I was on the wrong side of some railroad tracks, and I had no working phone (or map).

Anyway, it took a little more trial and error, but I did make it, about 20 minutes late.

I was a little miffed, after all that, that we spent the whole session in a conference room. I'll have to go back for an actual plant tour.

Earl Kenzie, the plant manager, is an affable and interesting guy. His presentation is here and includes some cool historic photographs of the plant being constructed in the 1930's, so you should go look at it now.

As it turns out, maybe my walk there did help my appreciate one of their challenges: the plant is locked in by a triangle of the active railroad, the Huron River, and Fleming Creek, which limits expansion.

When you flush the toilet, this is where it eventually ends up, after a trip through a sewer network that serves 130,000 people in the city of Ann Arbor and in Ann Arbor, Scio, and Pittsfield Townships. By the time it gets here, apparently it's basically a lot of grey water--18.4 million gallons a day of it on average, but it can go much higher during storms, and part of the plant is taken up by a huge system that can hold the surge when the plant temporarily can't keep up. Treated liquids are eventually released back into the Huron River, and solids go to either landfill or farm fields (where, for fear of contamination, they can only be used for crops like animal feed which don't go directly to humans).

Our sewer system is entirely separate from our storm water system--the latter is what handles water, for example, collected from storm drains in our roads. But during a big storm some storm water still can make it into the sewer system.

The annual budget is 15 million, which I believe is mainly from user fees. The city is required to base utility fees on costs (it can't use them as a way to raise general fund revenue), and to charge by use, as best it can. But of course our houses don't have sewage meters. So, if you've seen a bill, you probably know that your wastewater charges are based on your water meter--what comes in is a good approximation to what goes out.

We also heard from the Systems Planning and Engineering departments (roads!). That'll have to wait for another day....

Police and Fire

I didn't have any one big take-away from the police and fire session at the Ann Arbor Citizens Academy, just a collection of interesting bits:

  • I learned that there's a difference between EMTs and paramedics: EMTs provide "basic life support"--they can administer CPR and oxygen and provide some medications, for example. Paramedics have much more training and can do things like insert IVs. Fire department employees are EMTs. They can still be more useful in medical emergencies if they can get there earlier.
  • Judging from the police station tour, our police spend a lot of their time dealing with drunk drivers. The breathalyzer was a stop on the tour, as was the prominent line of tape on the floor designed to make it easy to find navigate to the breathalyzer room, even when it's 3am and you're terrifically drunk.
  • I'm no longer a toddler, but turns out that even for grownups a visit to the fire station, and a look at the big ladder truck, is fun. We did not get little plastic helmets to take home, but we did get to see the fire chief put on his fire-resistant suit, oxygen tank, helmet, and mask. Man, that stuff looks awkward and heavy.
  • So, wait, how do you fight a fire on the 12th story? You take the elevator. I guess that's kind of obvious, but it still surprised me--I'm so used to those warnings not to use the elevator in a fire. I guess that applies to residents going down, not firefighters going up. So isn't fire in a tall building scary? Well, steel and concrete don't burn easily, and big new buildings have well-engineered fire suppression systems, so that 12th-story fire is probably contained to the kitchen where it started. The fire chief said he'd rather fight a fire in a new, well-engineered building any day, compared to a century-old wood house that's been split up into apartments with a mystery floor layout.
  • The police department public relations guy is unhappy that they no longer have officers in the high schools. It's a point of disagreement between the fire department and the school board, apparently. I can imagine the arguments on both side, and it's something I'd be curious to dig into some day.
  • In the fire department, sounds like responding to crashes on the freeway is a big part of the job. I can't imagine. (Update: looking back at the annual report, they list 5 "vehicle extrications" (as opposed to, for example, 103 cooking fires) so maybe it's not *that* frequent.)

One question that I would like to get answered and didn't: from what I've seen, emergency fire department access is a big constraint on the design of our streets and buildings. I wonder where I'd go to understand those constraints, and whether there's anything we could do in cooperation with the fire department to loosen them in places. Somebody asked about this, but there wasn't time to go into it.

Fire department 2019 annual report. The police presentation isn't online--I'll link it in the future if I find it--but as usual the city website has plenty of information.

(Update: a friend recommends this article as an introduction to the fire code and building access requirements. Also note the fire department's inspections page says "The City of Ann Arbor has adopted the International Fire Code, 2015 edition (2015 IFC) as published by the International Code Council. Together with the provisions of Chapter 111 of the City Ordinance, shall be known as the Ann Arbor Fire Prevention Code." They note the IFC can be consulted at city hall, but it looks like the full text is online. Googling for US vs European fire access code also turns up this article.)

City Planning

This week I got to learn a little more about the Planning Department.

Something I'd really love to have some day is a "how a proposal becomes a building" flowchart with approximate times for each step. My rough understanding is:

  1. The developer submits a site plan with a ton of details about the proposal. For example, here's a site plan for the recent Lowertown development (not the site plan that was finally approved).
  2. Planning staff reviews the plan for compliance with the zoning code and the master plan, and also sends the plan to other departments for further review. (For example, to make sure there's adequate infrastructure to handle storm water.)
  3. After some back and forth, staff sends the plan to the planning commission, which may approve it, send it back to staff, or send it on to council.
  4. Council may likewise approve it, send it back to planning commission, or whatever. Somewhat bizarrely, Ann Arbor requires this step for every project, even when it's clearly allowed under existing zoning, in which case the most likely result of a "no" vote may be a lawsuit.

I think there are some required delays in there for public notice. I'm a little vague on the details.

Some stuff (a lot of work in single-family neighborhoods, for example?) doesn't require this full process.

You can follow a lot of this on etrakit. E.g., click on "Search" under "Projects" and search for the address "1200 Broadway", and you'll get a lot of details on that Lowertown development. Or you can look for the meetings where the project was discussed in Legistar, for example with a search for planning commission meetings mentioning "1200 Broadway".

A friend also points out this chart, linked from the planning department's Development Review page.

Property taxes and the city budget

Previously I tried to summarize two legal limits on the growth of property tax millages; roughly:

  1. Proposition A limits the annual growth in the taxable value of your house. The increase in your taxable value is limited to inflation (plus the value of any improvements you made in that year).
  2. The Headlee Amendment automatically decreases millage rates each year to limit the annual growth in the total revenue collected by the city. Total revenue collected by a given millage is limited to inflation (plus the value of any new construction completed in that year).

The Headlee Amendment especially can create interesting problems for local budgets.

At first glance it makes sense: generally it should cost about the same to deliver a given service from one year to the next. Unless your city's growing, but in that case you get new revenue from new construction.

However, there are some problems here:

  1. Inflation is a tricky thing. Not all prices increase at the same rate. For example, maybe a large part of your budget is made up of something that's increasing faster than inflation (say, your employees' health care costs).
  2. The Headlee Amendment automatically decreases millage rates when taxable value goes up, but it doesn't *increase* millage rates again when taxable values go back down. So in a recession, millage revenue can decrease; after recovery, it will be allowed to increase only by inflation. Another way to think of this: in inflation-adjusted dollars, millage revenue can only stay the same or (when there's a downturn) decrease; it never increases.

There are a number of ways cities might try to cope with this without cutting services:

  1. They can put a measure on a ballot asking voters to approve returning the millage to its original value (a "Headlee override").
  2. They may be able to find ways to be a little more efficient each year and deliver the same services for less money. (Ann Arbor, for example, cut its staff from a high of 1,005 to a low of 685 between 2001 and 2013).
  3. They can take advantage of the exception for new construction.

That last option can have a big impact. New construction brings new costs too, but city services often have large economies of scale, especially if the new construction is in existing neighborhoods--if you double the number of people living on a given block, you add additional wear and tear to the roads, for example, but the maintenance cost probably doesn't *double*--so the cost per residents goes down.

Property tax isn't the city's only source of income. Your water bills, for example, also go to the city (though the city is legally required to spend that money on water service.) The state also sends some portion of sales tax collected back to the city (though this has declined over the years). More details on all this in Tom Crawford's presentation.

City online resources

At this week's A2CA we got presentations from the CIty Clerk and the IT department.

A couple things I didn't know about:

If you look up the next city council meeting in Legistar, there should be an "eComment" link which you can use to submit comments. I'm afraid I usually complain to my friends or (occasionally) email my ward 2 council people. Maybe this would be better? It doesn't seem to be used much.

I didn't realize the city had its own fiber. I guess it used to depend on Comcast, but decided at some point that it was more cost effective to just build its own network. The city isn't allowed to go into the ISP business (somebody asked), but it does share its network with the DDA and the AADL.

Mainly though what impressed me was the amount of stuff that the city has online. Some I already knew about, some are worth posts of their own; a few examples:

Michigan property tax limits

This is how I understand Michigan property taxes:

Say we decide that the city should deliver each Ann Arbor resident a fresh pie every week, and we vote in a 1.5-mill property tax to fund that.

Suppose you bought a house this year. Take its market value, and divide it by two. That's called the "assessed value" of your house. (Why? I have no idea.)

Take 1.5 thousandths of that assessed value. That's your property tax.

So, for a $380,000 house (about the Ann Arbor median as of this writing), the assessed value would be $190,000 (half of $380,000), and the pie millage would cost you $285 a year ($190,000 times 1.5 divided by 1000).

That works for the first year in your house. But we should actually be using the "taxable value". The taxable value starts out the same as the assessed value (half the market value), but it is only allowed to increase by inflation (CPI) or 5%, whichever is less. If you modify the house (say, you make an addition), the value of the addition is also added to the taxable value (explanation from Ann Arbor Asessing office).

Ann Arbor market values have gone up faster than inflation over the years, so if you pick a property someone's been living in a while and look it up in the online property tax database, you'll see that the taxable value is likely lower than the assessed value.

When the house is sold, the taxable value will be "uncapped", and the next owner's taxable value will reset to the assessed value.

This limit on the growth of taxable values was imposed by Proposal A in 1994.

There's also a second limit which affects the total amount of tax that can be collected from a given millage. That amount is *also* limited to the lesser of inflation or 5%.

So if the total taxable value of all Ann Arbor properties is 5.5 billion, then the 1.5 mill pie tax will collect 1.5 thousandths of that, or 8.25 million. If Ann Arbor's total taxable value increases by more than inflation, then the millage rate is automatically decreased to ensure the total collected is no more than 8.25 million plus inflation. So the 1.5 mill pie tax may eventually become a 1.4 mill pie tax, etc.

This limit was put into place by the Headlee Amendment in 1978. The automatic decrease in millage rate is called a "Headlee rollback".

There's an important exception to this limit: it doesn't apply to new construction. Just as proposition A allows a new addition to your house to increase its taxable value, the Headlee Amendment allows the city to add revenue from any new construction. This makes sense--new construction is going to require new pie deliveries, after all.

All of this has some rather interesting affects on municipal finances--a subject for another post....

Learn anything about any city meeting

Your friends are posting about some local outrage. You're not sure who to trust for the basic facts. I mean, ideally there'd be a newspaper article, but, oh well, they can't necessarily keep up these days.

Fortunately, you know that said outrage is to be discussed at the next city council meeting. And, fortunately, the city has a ton of information online, and you're the internet-researching type. This, fellow civics geek, is the URL you want:

This has records not just for city council, but for every meeting of every City committee you've never heard of. You want to see the minutes for the Dec. 18 2012 meeting of the Parks Advisory Commission? You got it.

You can search by date or by committee, and there's a full text search, though I haven't figured out how deep exactly that goes.

The most interesting part is often under the "Meeting Details" link, which will take you to a page with every agenda item broken out, and clicking on *those* gets you staff reports, public commentary, and more.

The tricky part is often finding the right agenda item, as especially for something like city council there can be a lot, some of them pretty similar-sounding. But, you're the internet-researching type, so follow your nose and you'll find what you're looking for, or at a minimum an idea who you'd need to contact to get the details.


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