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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, February 21, 2019 1:00 am

SACS stresses validity of plan without tax hike

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

Southwest Allen County Schools wants to capitalize on an opportunity that would allow it to invest nearly $170 million into Homestead High School without raising taxes – and district leaders encourage any skeptics to come forward.

“It's now or it's going to become increasingly difficult to do it,” Superintendent Phil Downs said of the project's timing at an information meeting Wednesday night.

If all goes as planned, beginning late 2020 or early 2021, Homestead will undergo a three- to four-year construction project that will result in an essentially new building for a maximum cost of about $168 million, Downs told a partially filled auditorium at Homestead.

The district has the luxury of spending about a year on the design, he said.

Downs expects about 20 percent of the existing building will be repurposed, the new layout will be more student-friendly and that the project will address traffic flow on campus.

“The whole building will look better,” Downs said, responding to a question about improving the appearance of the front of Homestead. “It's essentially a brand-new, state-of-the-art high school.”

Several factors, including good financial management, a good maintenance program and retiring debt enables SACS to support a project of this magnitude without raising taxes, Downs said.

“It's an enviable position,” he said. “When I talk to superintendents across the state, they can't believe it.”

Before the project can proceed, however, the district must hold two public hearings and get through a 30-day period without a petition triggering a referendum. The hearings are set for set for March 5 and March 19.

Referendums can help school districts fund major facilities projects, such as new construction and renovations. Property taxes approved by voters through referendums are not subject to property tax caps.

Downs and Jim Coplen, business manager, encouraged attendees to let them know of anyone wanting to force a referendum so they can provide them the facts.

“We don't want that to happen on false information,” Coplen said.

Downs explained the fiscal information in detail – including an overview in school financing and property tax caps – but several attendees encouraged him to simplify the message to the general public.

“If it sounds too good to be true,” Downs said, “call me and let me show you all the crazy charts.”

asloboda@jg.net