Chesterton Tribune

Referendum vote saved school jobs, will ease budget crunch

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Because more than half of Dunelanders who voted in last May’s school referendum said yes to a 22 cent per $100 of assessed value property tax increase, the Duneland School Corporation will be able to sustain its teaching staff and its programs for 2013, said Schools Superintendent Dirk Baer.

The Duneland School Board on Monday carried out its yearly duty of working through the school’s projected budget for 2013. The newest of all budgets is the referendum budget which is expected to collect up to $4.8 million in next spring’s property tax collection to help cover funding shortfalls seen in next year’s Duneland school budget.

Baer said the additional money will not be available for the school to use during its upcoming 2012-13 school year, but when it kicks in it will help the school pay for its burgeoning costs. The county will levy the referendum-approved tax through its spring property tax bills and then disperse the funds to the school corporation.

Assistant Superintendent Dave Pruis who has been leading the budget discussions with the board, said the corporation has seen a seven percent increase in its health insurance costs for staff this year and significant hikes in costs for utilities and building repairs.

Programs and salaries will still be flatlined as they have been in recent years, Baer said, but if the referendum had been voted down the school at this time would have been looking at serious and painful cuts, with up to 26 staff positions getting the ax.

“It was not just a scare tactic after all,” said Board president Janice Custer, referring to criticisms made in days before the referendum vote.

Pruis said the state’s estimated allocations for the schools’ General Fund will be close to $34.4 million, which is about $1.3 million less than what was approved for 2012’s fund.

The General Fund is almost entirely made up of the state’s school funding, generated through sales and income tax. It goes mostly to fund teacher salaries. From the projected $34.4 million, $28.5 million is for basic tuition support and almost $3 million is used for Special Education, Pruis said.

“Without the referendum you go back to that original amount, we would have needed to take a cut of $4 million out of $34 million. That would NOT be fun,” Pruis said.

To which Baer replied: “That’s why we did it.”

As he did at the board’s July meeting, Pruis reviewed the schools’ debt service budget worth an expected $7.9 million (down $57,000 from this year); the pension debt service bond fund of $1.6 million ($923,000 less than this year); the Capital Projects fund of $10.4 million (about $200,000 less than this year); the Transportation fund of $3.8 million (up more than $50,000 from this year); and the Bus Replacement Fund of approximately $650,000 (about $40,000 less than this year).

Pruis said the corporation is looking to purchase six new buses next year and one smaller 27-passenger bus with what has been allocated in the bus replacement fund.

As it is estimated now, the total school corporation budget for 2013 sits at approximately $58.75 million, not including the revenue from the referendum.

Duneland’s 2012 budget was roughly $62 million and the referendum should raise it past that level, but it is still considerably less than the budgets seen in years before the 2008 tax reforms, when the state stopped schools from funding the General Fund from local property taxes.

With the presence of the tax caps and tax abatements, and the continued decline in assessed values in many parts of the school district, Pruis said Duneland’s prospective overall AV for this year is $2.416 billion, $4.6 million less than for this year. Sections of the school corporation that saw the biggest reductions in AV include the Jackson Twp. area and Westchester Twp., although some AVs did increase in areas like Liberty Twp., purportedly because of the new hospital.

Meanwhile, Pruis said the Indiana legislature this year has enacted a measure that would allow the school board more wiggle room in its capital funds budget by neutralizing its pension debt.

The school must pay off its $1.6 million debt, but with the new resolution the school corporation can provide additional money to the capital projects fund, while paying off its debt by yearly increments of 25 percent through the bus replacement fund. Pruis said it is only an estimated figure but $1.2 million more could be collected in the capital projects fund for next year, followed by $800,000 the next and $400,000 the year after that, until the neutralization reaches 100 percent.

“It will allow us to recoup some funds,” Pruis said.

Pruis said the additional funds could be used for badly needed roofing projects such as the estimated $650,000 renovation project at Liberty Intermediate School. The extra funds could also be spent on technology initiatives.

Pruis warned the state would only allow schools to pass resolutions this year. The board responded positively and gave Pruis permission to present the resolution at the board’s next meeting on Aug. 27.

“I think you should pursue it,” Custer told Pruis.

The board looks to finalize the proposed budget at that meeting. As required by state statute, a public hearing for the budget will take place on Monday, Sept. 10 with an official adoption tentatively scheduled for Oct. 1. Budgets must be approved before November.

 

Posted 8/14/2012