Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Final school referendum info session draws a crowd

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By LILY REX

The Duneland School Corporation hosted the final event in its series of four information sessions on the supplemental property tax referendum last night.

Over 100 people were in attendance. The event had to be moved from the Liberty Intermediate Media Center to the gym to accommodate everyone.

More than pushing back, attendees last night tended to be concerned about why things are the way they are with school funding, and what the appropriate response is.

The event began as the past three info sessions have--with Interim Superintendent Judy Malasto and Duneland CFO Lynn Kwilasz giving a presentation on Duneland’s accolades and accomplishments followed by an explanation of how state funding for education has changed over the past decade, creating the need for a referendum in many school systems.

Malasto emphasized that Duneland is always trying to use taxpayer dollars wisely to do the best it can for students.

“We’re not just asking for assistance without making sure we do everything we can to find money from other places,” Malasto said, noting that Duneland takes advantage of grants whenever possible.

“The reason why we’re here is for our students, they’re the center of all this,” Malasto said.

Duneland is seeking continuation of the supplemental property tax rate of 22 cents per $100 of assessed valuation that Duneland voters approved in 2012. Per state law, the supplemental property tax rate must be reapproved by voters via referendum every seven years.

The supplemental tax costs the average Duneland homeowner about $16 a month, based on the average assessed value of homes in Duneland.

Note Card Questions

First off, the crowd was given notecards and asked to write down their questions so everyone would have a chance to be heard. Malasto said she would address all notecard questions first, then open the floor for discussion.

The first notecard question asked what cuts would be made in Duneland if the referendum does not pass.

Malasto said there is no working list of what programs will go away upon a failure of the referendum because no one wants to make those choices if they don’t have to.

Malasto said the question was hard because Duneland has something for every kid, and she doesn’t want to see anything go. “Everything is on the table,” she said. “The idea of having to go through and decide which kid’s thing has to go--it wounds me.”

Another question was whether the Board considered seeking a lower rate. Malasto said it’s been on the table, but the Board’s financial consultant, Umbaugh, advised against lowering the rate because the gap between Duneland’s expected state funding and future operating costs is projected to be too large.

Someone wrote in asking if all the referendum funds collected thus far have been spent. Kwilasz said about $4 million, or two-thirds of one year’s referendum tax levy, is left over because the Board wanted to have a reserve in case of shortfalls in other funds.

Another attendee wrote in asking why her daughter’s kindergarten class is 28 kids when Duneland parents were promised smaller class sizes as part of the first referendum.

Malasto said less than ideal class sizes have been an “unintended consequence of enrollment” and the Administration is working on determining the ideal class sizes at Duneland, adding that she’d like to form a parent advisory group to make sure people in the community are heard on those issues.

Discussion

Malasto gave the floor to Duneland parent Jen Matuska, who wrote on her notecard that she wanted to address the room about the quality of Duneland Schools.

Matuska said the staff and programs at Duneland have been instrumental to her kids.

“I can’t stand that my kids won’t have those opportunities for something that I haven’t even noticed [on] my taxes in the whole time that I’ve lived here,” Matuska said. “I have had a kindergarten teacher hold my hand while we got a diagnosis on my daughter. I had teachers who helped me become a better mom because of their experiences.”

Matuska said her son has opened up especially because of programs offered at Westchester Intermediate. “He’s found his voice in robotics and orchestra and in so many things that I just can’t even fathom won’t be there sometime.”

“I will gladly check yes because I’ve got kids who, personally, academically, it’s all on the line. I can’t imagine those things not being there for them, or for any other kid.”

Following Matuska was Don Payne, who questioned the Board’s motives for holding the referendum in a municipal primary election at the second referendum info session.

Payne brought some numbers this time. He said general elections tend to have a 33 percent higher turnout.

“A lot of people don’t like to vote in the primary and I’m one of them,” Payne said, noting that Indiana voters must select a party affiliation to vote in primaries.

“I’m gonna vote no, but it’s not because I don’t support the schools or the students. It’s because I don’t want it added to my taxes,” Payne said.

Kwilasz, echoing statements at previous info sessions, said the decision was made to seek the referendum in May so the Board has ample time to budget for next year. She reminded the audience that over 100 jobs are funded from the referendum.

Cal Michael questioned whether the referendum is actually a permanent tax, citing former Superintendent Dirk Baer, who framed it as temporary and even promised to lower the rate to 19 cents and 10 cents over the course of the first seven years.

Michael said, “the new normal seems to be to spend to the state provided and referendum’s fiscal limits,” adding that no one wants to vote against education, but he questions the adults involved.

Another member of the audience agreed with Michael, saying he didn’t buy that the competent people at Duneland can’t budget based only on state support.

Malasto said Baer was reacting to something unexpected, and he couldn’t have predicted the future after the drastic cuts in school funding in 2008.

“Everyone was in shock when it happened. All the school corporations assumed that this was going to right itself.”

Malasto grabbed another notecard question to address all three concerns. The question, on state school funding, was: how can we address the laws?

Malasto said the adults downstate need to be questioned as well. “We do need to work together. We do need to write our legislators. This is a legislator problem. We just deal with it and try to provide the best we can for our students,” Malasto said.

The Duneland Teacher’s Association has been making its voice heard downstate, Malasto said, but more people need to sound off to the General Assembly.

“We didn’t create the problem. But we’re responsible for the solution, and our kids are the ones that suffer,” said Malasto. “This is what we need for our kids right now.”

In related comments, CHS history teacher Bob DeRuntz said funding isn’t just an issue in Duneland. 84 percent of school corporations in Indiana have sought a referendum and more than half have passed it. School Board member Alayna Lightfoot Pol also commented that Indiana is trying to fund three different models of education: traditional public schools, charter schools, and a voucher program.

Mike Fetla, for his part, questioned how legislators will be motivated to change school funding if taxpayers keep shouldering the burden through referendums. Malasto said sending a message by short-changing students “is not a risk I’m willing to take.”

Two Dunelanders took aim at answering Fetla and Michael. Keith Houghteling, a Chesterton resident who teaches in Illinois, said some Illinois schools are examples of why Duneland needs the referendum.

Houghteling said the programs at Duneland are “rich” and “beautiful,” but his school is suffering from being run on a shoestring budget like a business. “We have a beautiful library but no librarian. We have class sizes up to 37.”

Last was Bob Filipek, a former candidate for School Board. Filipek noted that Lake Ridge Schools in Lake County has recently announced major cuts due to the failure of its referendum.

“They’re closing an elementary school and laying off like 120 staff. That’s a reality we’re talking about,” Filipek said.

Filipek said it’s hard to hire quality teachers at current salary levels--even without asking them to take on large classes like Houghteling has seen. “How’s the quality of education when you’re trying to teach 37 kids and when you’re teaching 20 kids?”

“As a resident, I don’t want to see the school not pass the referendum and have to make cuts because its gonna affect the community as a whole,” Filipek said. “At the same time, do we want to send a message about this at the state level? Yes we do.”

 

 

Posted 4/24/2019

 
 
 
 

 

 

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