Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Supporters answer opponents at school referendum forum

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By LILY REX

Wednesday the Duneland School Corporation held the third event in a series of four information sessions where the public is invited to discuss the proposed renewal of Duneland’s supplemental property tax referendum.

In a change from the first two sessions, more supporters of the supplemental tax rate were in attendance--and they were vocal--often challenging those in the audience who questioned the need for extra funding and Duneland’s fiscal responsibility.

The sessions have each begun with a presentation on Duneland’s activities and accolades from Interim Superintendent Judy Malasto and an explanation of how school funding has changed since 2008.

In 2008, the Indiana General Assembly passed legislation that ended local property tax support for school general funds and dictated that student-related expenses, such as teacher salaries and program costs, cannot be supported by local property taxes unless voters in the school district approve a supplemental property tax via referendum allowing the local schools to collect up to 22 cents per $100 of assessed valuation (AV). The referendum must be renewed every seven years.

Duneland voters passed such a referendum in 2012, and must go to the polls on May 7 this year to decide if it will be renewed.

Duneland homeowners with a home valued at the median $183,600, pay $15.97 per month, or $191.60 per year. If a home’s assessed valuation has not gone up, the rate will have the same impact on a homeowner’s tax bill as it did last year.

Malasto asked those in attendance Wednesday to write their questions on notecards and said open discussion was also welcome.

Finances

The first notecard question was, “How many jobs are funded by or connected to the referendum?” Duneland Chief Financial Officer Lynn Kwilasz said the answer is 118--including teachers, aides, nurses and media specialists.

In another notecard question, someone asked if local businesses, including large industry like ArcelorMittal, pay the referendum tax. Kwilasz said all property owners in Duneland pay, whether they own residential, commercial, rental, or farm land.

Another notecard question pertained to tax exemptions. Kwilasz said homeowners are taxed on their net AVs, and most homeowners qualify for the homestead and mortgage exemptions.

Residents can estimate the impact of the referendum tax rate by entering their AVs and selecting what exemptions they qualify for on the tax calculator under the “Referendum” tab on Duneland’s website.

Greg Arthur, lead pastor at Duneland Community Church, said he supports the referendum and suggested the conversation isn’t about money as much as it is community.

“Our world is defined by scarcity, there is never enough,” Arthur read, from a prepared statement. “The answer for scarcity isn’t to retreat and withdraw from each other, but to instead invest in each other. This referendum is our statement as a community that we know it isn’t just about me, my life, and my needs.”

Performance

Cal Michael asked why he’s being asked to support Duneland with extra funding while it lags behind Valparaiso High School in Department of Education (DOE) measures like state grades.

Malasto and School board member Kristin Kroeger acknowledged that Duneland is behind in some respects, and Malasto said programs made possible in part by the referendum, such as Project Lead the Way and new engineering classes at CHS, are aimed at improving performance.

“We’re looking at that information. Analyzing that data is clearly something we’re doing, and we continue to do that to see how we can improve,” Malasto added.

Libby Conway said she emailed 14 questions to School Board President Brandon Kroft. Conway said Kroft responded to her, but she wanted more clarification on the school’s budget.

Conway referred to the per-student tuition support that Duneland gets from the State, which increases every year based on enrollment. “If I’m picking up what you guys are putting down, you need money. My concern is: how much? If you’re expecting a raise, I want to understand that shortfall.”

Kwilasz said the referendum tax levy was around $6.5 million last year, so that amount--close to 10% of this year’s $69 million budget-- would be the shortfall. Duneland is estimated to get $38 million in state support this year, which must be split between student-facing costs and operations.

Conway wasn’t quite satisfied with that, adding that it seems to her Duneland’s teachers aren’t being paid well enough while construction on buildings continues every year.

“What we were told in 2012 by Dr. Dirk Baer is our schools would shut down if we didn’t have a referendum. If I look at performance, and I look at additions to buildings, and payment, this does not ring true to me,” Conway said.

Joe Quartuch, a retired math teacher of 40 years, took aim at complaints about the tax, saying he’s one retiree who gladly pays it.

“When I was driving in this morning, I noticed that the cost of gasoline was up 22 cents,” Quartuch said. “I got a letter in the mail that my supplemental medical for Medicare went up $16 per month for I and my wife.”

“I’d gladly pay the amount to Duneland. We get more bang for our buck there than we do with the gasoline or the Medicare,” said Quartuch.

Colleen and Sal Lovinello had the perspective that Duneland just wants to maintain the status quo. Sal Lovinello said those wondering what would change without the referendum should look to schools like Crown Point, who have lost their supplemental property tax levies and cut programs.

“I am a product of the Chicago public education system, and they didn’t have half the education we have when they spend more per student,” Sal Lonvinello added.

Colleen Lovinello agreed with Quartuch. “I would gladly give more taxes.”

John Vereb, who was critical of the proposed tax throughout the session, countered that its dedicated teachers, involved parents, and kids willing to learn that determine performance--not dollars.

What-ifs

Malasto responded to a notecard question: “What happens if this doesn’t pass?”

“I’m an optimistic person. I’m a very positive person, and the thought of trying to choose which programs, which individuals, and which support services in our school corporation will have to go away is overwhelming to me,” Malasto said.

Maslasto said Duneland offers something for every kid, with its variety of athletic and arts options and its partnerships with local entities, but that will have to change if the referendum doesn’t pass.

“We find a path for every student, and those are supplemental programs, and if this doesn’t pass, they will go away. We’ll have to make those decisions about what can go away.”

Someone also asked if class sizes might increase. Malasto said they could. “Everything is on the table. There is nothing that is not.”

Vereb pointed out that voter turnout is likely to be higher in November. Vereb said it was “shameful” of the administration not to admit that they think a low turnout will help their case.

What if the vote was in November? Kwilasz responded that Duneland’s budget is due Nov. 1. Though the referendum vote can be after the cutoff, she reiterated that 118 people are in the balance.

“I don’t think we’d want to have to tell those people that we don’t know if they can work here next year. That’s disingenuous to people, waiting until the last minute,” Kwilasz said.

CHS history teacher Bob DeRuntz said it’s up to the voters. “Be it November 5 or May 7, a community member still has to get up off the couch and go cast a ballot, or they can vote early. They have a month for that,” DeRuntz said.

“There is almost nothing stopping people in the community from voting.”

 

Posted 4/5/2019

 

 
 
 

 

 

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