Chesterton Tribune



Public questions school admins about referendum

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Four members of the public asked questions of Duneland Schools administrators at the first of four Info Sessions the administration is holding to inform the public about the supplemental property tax referendum voters will consider on May 7.

In 2012, Duneland voters approved a supplemental property tax rate of up to 22 cents per $100 of assessed valuation (AV) to supplement state funding to the Duneland Schools. Since a 2008 decision by the General Assembly, school general fund expenses are not funded by local property taxes unless voters in a particular district pass a referendum consenting to an extra tax rate.

Local property taxes, in the absence of a voter-approved referendum, do continue to support operational expenses like transportation and maintenance, but those taxes do not put a dent in paying salaries or funding educational programs unless a referendum passes.

Such a referendum, once passed, must be renewed every seven years. Duneland voters must go to the polls on primary election day, Tuesday, May 7, to vote yay or nay this year.

Duneland Schools Interim Superintendent Judy Malasto began by presenting an overview of Duneland Schools. Malasto said the district has over 5,000 students, 764 employees, and is constantly focused on supporting all of those people.

Malasto then touched on the programs that have been able to start, expand, and continue to thrive since 2012 with the addition of the referendum funds. She noted that Duneland partners with local businesses, nonprofits, and nearby universities to provide opportunities for students to gain real world experience in trades and professional work alike and earn college credit for free.

She mentioned the International Baccalaureate program at CHS. “The IB program is something we’re very proud of. Every year we have about 25 to 30 students in the full diploma program or the arts program.” According to graphs provided to the Chesterton Tribune by Duneland’s Chief Financial Officer, Lynn Kwilasz, referendum funds have been used to support the IB program since 2014.

Malasto said one of the biggest investments from the referendum has been in technology. The District has been able to provide professional development for teachers regarding new technology and acquired devices for all students. Malasto said vocational training has been expanded at CHS, and more of a focus has been placed on helping students be job-ready.

The referendum has also enabled unique programs at Duneland, Malasto said. “We have a radio station, most people don’t know that, that we have an active working radio station at CHS. That is very unique, actually. I believe there’s only 40 around the state.”

Kwilasz and Malasto pointed out that the district is always trying to save money and use the extra tax dollars responsibly by obtaining grants, participating in cooperative purchasing, and partnering with community entities that will share resources. Kwilasz also said Duneland takes advantage of any opportunity to save money in interest or pay down debt. Last year, the District paid off some of its pension debt.

Kwilasz said the State’s goal in its 2008 decision to fund school general funds without local property taxes was intended to level the playing field, but that’s easier said than done.

“We all know what happens when people equalize things There are winners and losers,” Kwilasz said. “There’s not enough for everybody when you start finding a middle ground. We were one of those that didn’t have enough money to meet our community’s goal in how we educate our kids and what we expect to provide.”

“What we spent our money on were a lot of the programs and the people that it takes to make those possible that Judy mentioned earlier,” said Kwilasz. “Over 100 staff members are paid in some form from the referendum.”

Kwilasz echoed Malasto’s sentiment about Duneland being unique. “We’re one of the only school corpoations I know of that keeps a licensed nurse in every building,” Kwilasz said.

Malasto mentioned the referendum funds have also helped support security upgrades to buildings and allowed the District to upgrade from having one School Resource Officer to three.

Kwilasz said Duneland self-funds a mandated program on English-language learning. “Although that’s a State mandate, they don’t provide the money to go with it. We have chosen to make sure that we don’t just pay lip service, and that we have money to actually serve those students.”

A member of the public, who said he wanted to speak for those on fixed-incomes, Richard Erow, asked the first question. “I think we’ve had phenomenal growth in this area as far as subdivisions go. Does that not transmit into more funding for Duneland?”

Kwilasz responded that growth results in a higher AV, which means as more people move in, Duneland gets more out of the 22 cent tax rate, if it is in place. If a referendum tax rate is not in place, that growth in AV results in the district collecting more local property taxes that it can’t use for student-facing costs.

School Board member Kristin Kroeger chimed in. “As things become more expensive from non-student expenses, maintenance, buses, it helps over there,” Kroeger said. “That can’t really cross over and come into how we’re taking care of our kids.”

Erow said he knows a lot of people are doing well, but for those on a fixed-income, an extra 22 cents can be a burden.

Another member of the public, John Doyle, suggested the District shouldn’t be asking for more money if it’s doing so well paying off its debt. Doyle also asked why costs have gone up since Dr. Richard Boyd’s comprehensive study of the District showed that enrollment was not significantly increasing.

Kwilasz said part of that is because Duneland has expanded its teaching staff. “We want to make sure we have the best people, so we try to pay them well.”

Kroeger said, since state funding is doled-out on a per student basis, Duneland gets only small funding increases every year in the face of changing student needs.

“The only outlet that we have to meet the gaps in that funding is the operating referendum. The referendum was not intended to be temporary, save a change in the state funding,” said Kroger. “If the State changes the way they’re funding schools to give us more money, then how much we’re asking for will change because we’d rely less on state funding.”

Malasto said though the number of students is not skyrocketing, the academic and social needs of the students have increased. Malasto reiterated the referendum is the reason Duneland can provide more school counselors and have nurses in every school.

Erow said some of the benefits discussed sound like wants rather than needs to him.

“I see that perception,” Malasto responded, “but in order to make sure our students are as competitive as possible, some of these programs are expected now.”

Malasto cited programs that emphasize STEM and creative problem solving, such as Project Lead the Way. “I understand the idea that these are needs not wants, but these things are programs we believe our students need exposure too, otherwise they’re being left behind in a global society.”

Kroeger chimed in again. “I love the Duneland community, and I love the fact that this is someplace people want to live, and part of the reason we’ve experienced this boom and this AV growth is because people are coming here to raise their families,” she said. “And in order to have them come here we have to have a great school system.”

Kroger continued, “We believe that a strong school district contributes to the vitality of the community.” She challenged people to look at the differences between the Duneland community and other districts where a referendum is not in effect.

Pete Hokanson was next to pose a question. “You talked about the radio station, how many kids benefit from it? I realize it’s nice to have, but how many kids are getting experience in that radio station and using that experience?”

Malasto’s response: “The scholarship and opportunity it provides our students is worth what’s being spent.”

Erow expressed understanding, but said, “If I was on the Board, I’d say ‘Give me more money’ too.”

Rose Faltak agreed with Erow’s notes on fixed-income, but had another concern: former Superintendent Dr. Ginger Bolinger’s severance and original salary agreement, where the Board agreed to make contributions to Bolinger’s retirement accounts to the tune of $18,000 a year and provide her a $750 per month car allowance during her employment.

“How did that help our students, especially when she came with negative remarks from a former employer? That kind of makes me feel like ‘the money is there so we spend it’. That’s my interpretation of the board,” said Faltak.

Kroger, who was President of the Board at the time of Bolinger’s hire, responded. “There are a lot of things Dr. Bolinger did when she was here that we are super excited about. We have a strategic plan now. We have very high expectations for this role. I think in working with Dr. Bolinger, we started to have different expectations.”

Kroger went on that the Board had the tough conversations it needed to have when Bolinger sought retirement, in spite of how it could make the Board look, and negotiated the best solution.

“I will absolutely defend, and so will my fellow board members, that what happened there was the best thing for the community and for the school,” Kroeger said.

Hokanson changed topics back to technology, questioning if kids need so much instruction on it when they grow up with it. Duneland IT Director Kevin Wilson answered, saying there has to be an emphasis on information integrity when so much is available.

“The way I was brought up, if you go to the library, you need to look at three sources and then come up with your own evaluation. Students today aren’t doing that. If it’s on the internet, its gospel,” Wilson said. “They’re learning to find answers and become their own voices in their learning. I 100 percent do believe that that is needed.”

Wilson continued that professional development is a big part of Duneland’s tech expenses. “We have teachers who have been educated to teach in a nondigital world, so we have committed resources to transitioning how they teach to a digital world.”

Hokanson said he saw the value in that, but questioned how others are supposed to know. “If you talk to most people out in the community, they think the tech is for the tablets for the kids, and nothing is ever mentioned about bringing our teachers up to speed. That message is not getting through.”



Posted 2/14/2019




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