Chesterton Tribune

Investment in the future: Duneland voters approve tax for schools

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It wasn’t the win school officials were hoping for, but Duneland Superintendent Dirk Baer said Tuesday’s razor-thin voter approval of Duneland’s tax referendum is still significant, for it will keep programs intact and minimize anticipated staff layoffs.

“This is very much an investment in the future vote, in my mind,” Baer said this morning.

On Tuesday, Duneland School voters joined those in the Oregon Davis and Zionsville school districts in approving property tax hikes to shore up their school general funds that have been decimated by state funding cuts.

Six other school corporations also held separate tax referenda for school construction projects; Baer said it is believed that all but one of those also passed.

Baer said the success of Tuedsay’s school referenda could be a sign that the public is starting to realize that school funding problems are the direct result of state education policies.

The end result could be a wake-up call for state legislators to address school funding issues, as well as prompt other struggling schools to turn to their local property taxpayers for help.

“You might start seeing more of these coming this fall or next spring,” Baer said.

For Duneland, the referendum approval means that property taxpayers will see an additional school tax rate of up to 22 cents on their tax bills for the next seven years, beginning in 2013. How much the tax will raise will depend largely on the local assessed value, but it is roughly estimated it will generate $5.6 million a year.

The additional tax won’t solve all of Duneland’s funding woes, Baer said. For one thing, because the additional revenues won’t be available until next year, Duneland will continue to have a “tight, tight budget” this year. School officials will continue to be vigilant in cutting costs, he said.

At the same time, the tax referendum approval will plug a growing budget shortfall and curb anticipated additional cuts. Duneland already gave notice to 18 teachers -- mainly those in the elementary fine art and media programs -- that their positions are expected to be eliminated. Two of the positions are currently held by teachers who are retiring, and those two will likely remain unfilled. But with the referendum approval, the pressure to cut the other slots has been lifted, and the intent is to keep the 16 remaining teachers on board, Baer said.

“We won’t see the massive layoffs we would have seen otherwise,” he said.

Tueday’s tax referenda in Duneland and the other school systems stem from a 2008 state law that significantly altered school funding in Indiana. The state “took over” funding of school general funds, paying for it in part by increasing the state sales tax from 6 to 7 percent. But within a year of the school funding takeover, the state announced nearly $300 million in additional funding cuts to schools. The 2008 state law also gave schools the option of turning to local voters for additional property tax funds.

Duneland’s shortfall at the start of this year exceeded $1 million, and its general fund totals about $8 million less than five years ago. Without an additional funding source, Duneland’s shortfall was projected to rise to $8.4 million within seven years.

Of the three operating fund referenda on the ballot Tuesday, Duneland’s tax hike was comparable to the other two. Zionsville’s additional tax rate will be up to 24 cents while Oregon Davis’ will be up to 19 cents.

But Duneland’s result was the closest, passing by a 51 to 49 percent margin, or 4,093 to 3,940. Oregon Davis’ referendum passed comfortably, 699-383, while Zionsville’s was closer, 3,954 to 3,259.

Baer said he would have liked to see a larger margin in support of the referendum. But he acknowledged that Duneland was up against a few big obstacles. In addition to a continued tough economy, he said the hotly contested U.S. Senate Republican race between veteran Richard Lugar and Tea Party-backed Richard Mourdock may have brought out many more voters than usual who are not particularly sympathetic to tax hikes for schools.

Baer also said that last year’s decision to replace the Chesterton High School football field with artificial turf continues to be a sore spot with many voters. He said that even though Duneland tried to get the message out that the funds for the turf are separate from the school operating funds, it was impossible to convince everyone.

Despite the close margin, Baer said he is still pleased that the majority of voters came out in support of the referendum.

“I still think it’s a victory for the kids of the Duneland School Corporation,” he said.

Posted 5/9/2012