The Journal Gazette
Sunday, July 28, 2019 1:00 am


Districts face finance reality - 'it's just us'

Fort Wayne Community Schools' ongoing building repair program goes before voters a third time next May when a ballot referendum seeks an additional $125 million from property taxes. Following successful referendums in 2012 and 2016, the district is prepared to tackle major projects at Wayne High School and Blackhawk and Miami middle schools, plus repairs and improvements at dozens of other schools.

The district's track record on repairs and renovations makes the Repair 2020 referendum worthy of continued support. But the referendum also represents the only option Fort Wayne Community Schools and other public school districts in Indiana have to meet their building and operations needs.

Consider Terre Haute, where voters in November will be asked to approve a property tax increase to avoid doubling the $4 million in cuts Vigo County Schools will make over the nexttwo years.

“Nobody is coming to help,” Superintendent Rob Haworth told the school board this month. “Washington, D.C., is not coming to help. Indy is not coming to help. ... It's just us.”

That's also the case for Hamilton Community Schools, where an operating expenses referendum this November represents a last-chance effort to save the 300-student district. A referendum last November failed, but the proposed tax rate is reduced in the latest request from 71 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to 44 cents. Without the additional revenue, the one-school district will close next May.

“It would be a sad day to drive by and see the doors locked up, lights off and the lawn not mowed,” Superintendent Tony Cassel said last week.

After a decade of school referendums, voters should understand that the state's 2008 property tax reform forever changed Indiana school finance. The ability of elected public school board members to meet needs in their districts is constrained by the General Assembly's ability and willingness to adequately fund schools.

The $736 million in new money approved in the latest biennial budget just begins to make up for a decade of declining support. Between 2009 and 2011, state funding for K-12 education fell by 8.5%. The lower level of support continued until this past legislative session, making it difficult for districts to increase salaries as they faced rising costs in utilities, health care and more in operating costs. For expenses supported by local property taxes, such as building construction or transportation, the squeeze comes from both rising costs and tax caps.

 Lawmakers were slow to recognize that the wholesale change Indiana made in property taxes and school funding in 2008 shifted both financial control and greater responsibility to the General Assembly. Attention drawn to declining teacher salaries and a growing scandal related to two online charter schools helped to convince them.

The school referendum process continues to evolve after more than a decade. Public school officials know they have less control over school funding but no less responsibility in building and maintaining schools and in making sure teachers receive fair compensation. They are learning that a building or operations referendum is the only tool they have to meet that responsibility. They also are learning they must prove to voters the additional tax dollars they seek come as a last resort, are not excessive and will be spent efficiently.

For better or worse, school referendums are here to stay. The Vigo County Schools superintendent is right – “it's just us” when it comes to giving local schools the support they need.

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