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School referendums highlight four primary ballots

By April 15, 2015June 22nd, 2024No Comments

Reposted from the Chicago Post Tribune – April 17, 2015 by Jerry Davich

What is the worth of our local schools to taxpayers in each community?

On May 5, we will find out through referendums for four Northwest Indiana school districts – River Forest, Valparaiso, Hanover Central and Gary. Those districts are hoping to follow Munster, Crown Point, Hebron, Wheeler and Chesterton, which have passed referendums to bolster their general fund budgets in recent years.

Since 2010, more than 30 Indiana public school corporations have been forced to conduct referendums to offset debilitating budget cuts from the state. This public question on ballots seeks voter permission to use property tax funds to maintain and expand academic programs, student safety, transportation and other educational needs.

Of the four local districts with pending referendums, I find River Forest’s request to be the most intriguing and possibly the most controversial.

The referendum asks voters: “For seven calendar years immediately following the holding of the referendum, shall the River Forest Community Corporation impose a property tax rate that does not exceed forty-two cents ($.42) on each one hundred dollars ($100) of assessed valuation and that is in addition to all other property tax levies imposed by the school corporation for the purpose of funding teaching positions and educational programming?”

It’s a simple yes or no question, but it’s polarizing the school district-related communities of Lake Station, Hobart and New Chicago, which help support roughly 1,500 students.“That decision will demonstrate to our state legislators the depth of this community’s dedication to the belief that our small, community-based schools are what we believe is best for our kids,” states a public message from the River Forest School Board, which strongly supports the referendum.

River Forest Superintendent Steven Disney agrees, insisting to me, “When schools go down, property assessments go down and the local community goes down. That’s why this referendum is an investment into our community.”

Cynthia Robbins, a Lake Station taxpayer, disagrees, claiming there is a lack of transparency with this referendum and with other school district issues. She doesn’t believe it deserves more of her money.
“This is for a non-performing school, and I am not getting my tax dollars’ worth,” Robbins said. “None of us knew about the referendum until a couple of weeks ago, and it is already on the ballot. This is the best-kept secret.”

Disney said the state has cut funding to River Forest by more than $1.35 million since 2010.
In a public plea to River Forest parents, voters and business owners, Disney outlined the history of Indiana public school funding, a complex process similar to “making sausage,” he told me.
In 2008, the General Assembly changed a law to make the state responsible for funding schools, “thus taking over control and dictating what amounts each school received and allowing the state to shift funding to charter schools and vouchers,” Disney wrote in a newsletter.

This law was amended by the General Assembly to allow a school corporation to conduct a general fund referendum to increase the property tax levy to carry out its public educational duty, he noted.
“It’s hard enough for our teachers to understand, let alone the general public,” Disney said.
He also reminded them about former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels reducing funding for all Hoosier schools by some $300 million.

“In 2011, the Indiana governor found over $300 million dollars that had been lost in state accounts. We have pleaded to the Indiana General Assembly to just restore the money that was cut and then found,” Disney said.

As we all know, that never happened. School-rescuing referendums across the state have been the route to recoup some of that lost funding. In this area, River Forest joins Valparaiso, Hanover Central and Gary with referendums, in addition to early voting opportunities already available.

In Valparaiso, voters will decide on two measures: Raising $4.4 million annually for the next seven years, and raising $148 million for capital improvement projects. That district consists of one high school, two middle schools and eight elementary schools, though enrollment has declined 100 students each year for the past two years, school officials say.

Hanover Community School Corp. is asking voters to approve a 29-cent property tax rate hike on each $100 of assessed valuation.

In Gary, the school district is asking taxpayers to approve a seven-year referendum involving a property tax rate hike of 41 cents on each $100 of assessed valuation. This is expected to total $7.4 million each year, totaling nearly $52 million. (Gary school officials are still creating a website to provide more info for residents.)

River Forest is asking for the highest property tax rate increase of the four school districts, with a 42-cent hike on each $100 of assessed valuation. (For more info, visit the Facebook page “Vote Yes Save RF.”)

In other words, on a $100,000 home, with a homestead deduction, supplemental homestead deduction and mortgage deduction, the monthly cost to a homeowner would be roughly $11.50, Disney said.

Considering that this school district ranks low in assessed valuation and also in property tax collection rates, referendum supporters have a tall task at hand.

“Given our poverty, we’re still beating all the odds,” said Robert Ordway, a River Forest graduate who helped create the political action committee, River Forest Yes.

Can they also beat these long odds?
“It’s all about voter turnout,” Disney admitted.
Finally, I asked Disney the same question I’ve heard from Northwest Indiana homeowners who no longer have school-age children: Why should they approve a referendum for schools they don’t use?
“Somebody paid for you and your children,” he replied