Chesterton Tribune

Superintendent Baer details scope of school crisis if Duneland tax referendum fails

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By KEVIN NEVERS

Officials have been warning folks of an imminent funding crisis certain to befall the Duneland School Corporation if voters reject a new property-tax referendum on the ballot on May 8.

They have not, however, spoken directly about the specific form that crisis would take.

Until Tuesday, when Superintendent Dirk Baer appeared before the Chesterton/Porter Rotary Club to make the case for a new property tax—22 cents per $100 of assessed valuation—which officials say is necessary to maintain the quality of Duneland’s schools.

Should the May 8 referendum fail to pass, Baer told Rotarians, DSC would be forced to take the following steps:

•“In-school aides would basically disappear,” Baer said.

•Secretarial staff would be reduced by 20 percent.

•A minimum of 20 teaching positions would be cut.

•Class sizes would increase by a minimum of 10 percent.

•The $750,000 spent annually on “high-visibility” extracurricular programming—sports, music, speech and debate—would be slashed by fully 33 percent or $250,000.

Which secretaries would be let go, which teachers, which programs attenuated or eliminated: these are details which Baer declined to discuss until he’s consulted with the Duneland School Board.

But Baer made this point: the two factors most clearly associated with educational excellence and student achievement—class size and extracurriculars—are in the line of fire.

And he made one other: the so-called “Duneland Difference” isn’t simply a matter of concern to parents with children in the schools; it’s also—or should be—a matter of concern to the business community. The DSC has long been a major selling point for Duneland and firms have located here precisely so that their employees may enroll their children in the schools. Should the May 8 referendum fail, that selling point could become moot.

Or as Baer put it, “Is your business worth more or less if the school district declines?”

Turf Confusion

Baer also spent time clarifying some confusion in the community about a couple of issues.

First, the artificial turf.

The DSC’s expenditure on the turf was covered with moneys from the Capital Projects fund, one of three highly regulated funds—the other two being Transportation and Debt Service—for which dedicated property-tax rates already exist. The crisis at hand, though, has nothing to do with those three funds, Baer said. Rather, it solely concerns the General Fund, 86 percent of which is used to pay employee salaries and a further 6 percent to pay for special education.

Under state law, there may be no transfers of moneys from Capital Projects or Transportation or Debt Service to the General Fund. Or from the General Fund to any of those three. All four funds are hermetically sealed and inviolate and a shortfall in one of them—in this case in the General Fund—may not be covered by a movement of money from one of the others.

Both in practice and in principle, Baer added, the artificial turf “was a good investment in our kids.” In the fall of 2010, before the turf was installed, 37 events—totaling 114 hours—were held on the grass at CHS stadium. In the fall of 2011, after the turf was installed, 194 events—totalling 620 hours—were held at CHS stadium.

Administration Confusion

Baer replied as well to a second bit of confusion in the community: the notion that DSC’s administration is bloated and that any crisis could be averted by eliminating administrators.

Begin with this fact, Baer said: the DSC has 700 employees, 20 of whom are administrators, whom he defined as those charged with “overseeing what happens in the schools.”

Twenty administrators over nine schools, just about two per school.

Too many principals at CHS? Well, there’s a principal there and three assistant principles, Baer said. But there are also 2,000 students at CHS.

Too many at CMS? There’s a principal there and only one assistant principal, in a school with 950 students.

Bottom line, Baer said. “You could get rid of all of us and it wouldn’t make much of a difference in the budget.”

In any case, DSC has already retrenched, Baer said: 34 staff positions have been cut through attrition, including 17 teachers and six administrators; salaries have been frozen since academic year 2008-09; all 12-month employees are now furloughed without pay one week per year; all clerical staff have had their hours reduced by 30 minutes per day, 2.5 hours per week; spending on travel and professional development for all practical purposes has been zeroed; and certain programming cuts have been made, including to the Alternative School and the Positive Life Program.

The Referendum

Baer noted that folks who object to primary elections on the ground sthat they have to declare a party may still vote on May 8 on the referendum. Simply go to your polling place and ask for a referendum ballot; no need to declare any party affiliation.

If the referendum is approved, the owner of a home assessed at $100,000 would pay—after the standard deductions—a total tax in a given year of $72.05, around $6 per month.

But that 22-cent rate would be effectively cut to 19 cents starting in 2013, when one of the DSC’s debts is retired; and then to 10 cents in 2018, after a second debt is retired.

 

Posted 3/21/2012