Voters who live in the Fort Wayne or East Allen community schools districts have more than candidates to consider in casting primary election ballots this year. Each school district is seeking to increase property tax levies to support major construction projects. Each has different but well-warranted cases for approval.
Why itís necessary
When property tax outrage began boiling over in some Indiana communities in 2007, lavish school buildings and state-of-the-art athletic facilities in some suburban districts were identified as one of the culprits. The General Assemblys property tax overhaul in 2008 intentionally made it harder for school districts to build schools or renovate, eliminating the dueling petition drives for major projects with a referendum that asks voters – in the privacy of the voting booth – whether they want their property taxes to increase.
Meanwhile, school building needs did not disappear with shrinking capital project fund revenues. Many of Fort Waynes buildings already were in dire condition when its $500 million long-range building plan was rejected in a dueling petition drive in 2007. East Allens project is a combination of needed mechanical and electrical repairs and new construction to accommodate a districtwide redesign.
The $119 million FWCS project would cover the cost of repairs at 36 buildings – replacement of windows and heating and cooling systems, masonry repair and roof replacement. The biggest project is at Snider High School, a 47-year-old building with a failing heating system, crumbling brickwork, leaky windows and extensive classroom needs.
John Riley, a Fort Wayne architect whose expertise is in addressing building envelope problems – roof, masonry, windows and more – took on advocacy for the FWCS building plan as a retirement project. Hes inspected the schools from top to bottom and documented their weaknesses on a website (see box).
The FWCS project includes no new construction. The work addresses basic structural needs threatening the integrity of the buildings. It adds air-conditioning only in 13 schools where mechanical systems require replacement.
East Allens $88.7 million project includes renovation of the former Paul Harding High School to create East Allen University, Allen Countys first early college program. The building opened in 1973, with the open-concept classrooms popular at the time. Half of the work planned will address heating and mechanical systems and other work will reconfigure the school for traditional classrooms on the second floor and lecture spaces and college commons area on the first floor.
Work at New Haven Jr.-Sr. High School will add space to accommodate the 7th- and 8th-grade students. About 70 percent of the work is maintenance on the 35-year-old school. New Haven Intermediate School will replace New Haven Middle School and portions of the adjacent Park Hill building to add classrooms for grades 3-6. New Haven Elementary School will be renovated for use as East Allen administrative offices, relocated from the high school property to allow for more parking and reconfigured traffic lanes.
Why support it?
The FWCS project is overdue, waylaid by the long-range $500 million plan in 2007, now widely seen as too ambitious. District officials admit the current proposal is just the first phase. They are committed to demonstrating fiscal responsibility in repairing buildings most in need before asking taxpayers for more.
Opposition to the earlier project wrongly targeted academic performance. No students should be required to earn decent school buildings. In any case, the districts progress in spite of its substandard buildings and ever-increasing academic demands should put the performance complaints entirely to rest. The states top-performing urban district could serve students even better with classrooms that arent sweltering or freezing, with proper lighting and electrical work to accommodate technology.
The tax impact is minimal. For the average homeowner in the FWCS district, the project will cost about $27 a year. Energy savings created by the improvements will allow the district to put more of its capital projects fund money toward other needed repairs.
Why should voters who dont have children in FWCS schools support the project? Because good schools serve everyone, not just those using them directly. They bolster property values and neighborhoods, attract employers and increase civic pride.
The East Allen districts unique composition creates different demands. The New Haven attendance area has the majority of voters, students and property value. But New Haven residents made a commitment 50 years ago to establish a partnership with the smaller communities of Leo-Cedarville, Grabill, Woodburn and Hoagland. For better or worse, the communities must support one another for the good of the entire district.
The redesign plan approved by the EACS board in 2010 required many of the communities to sacrifice elementary schools for kindergarten through grade 12 campuses. In exchange, theyve maintained the high schools that district residents have fiercely protected for decades. The project represents a nearly $89 million boost to the New Haven economy, with a tax impact of about 40 cents per $100 of assessed value for all of the districts projects. Its a responsible plan that puts students first, while respecting the strong ties each individual community has to its schools.
For voters in both the Fort Wayne and East Allen districts, a yes vote on the referendum question is a vote for a stronger community.