Chesterton Tribune

County Council pushes for elected Valpo School Board

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A provision in a new state law surprised members of the Porter County Council who are not happy with their new responsibility to review the budget for the Valparaiso school district.

The law, which goes into effect July 1, calls for fiscal bodies of a county or city to approve budgets for school boards with appointed members. Since a portion of the Valparaiso school district is in unincorporated Center Township the county council will have to review and approve the 2013 Valparaiso Schools budgets.

Reluctant to get involved with school matters in a district eyeing massive cuts, the council passed a resolution 5-1 on Tuesday pushing Valparaiso to switch its school board from appointed to elected in order to relieve the Council of the budget duty.

All other Porter County school districts — including Duneland — have elected boards and are not covered by the new law.

With the number of other budgets the council is responsible for, members did not feel up to the task of handling the details of a school budget, not knowing firsthand what the needs of the schools are.

“It’s going to be very hard for this board to delve into that and do it justice,” said Council president Dan Whitten, D-at large, who mentioned from experience as a school board attorney that managing their budgets is “a year-round process.”

Agreeing was Council member Sylvia Graham, D-at large, who said she has heard school budgets are difficult to handle.

“Why are we even getting involved in this?” she asked.

Council members Jim Biggs, R-1st, and Jim Polarek, R-4th, called the measure both unfair to the schools and to the taxpayers pointing out that not all members live in the school district.

Council attorney Scott McClure said the council would have the authority to adjust the school budget by lowering or modifying it but would not be able to increase the tax levy.

Whitten said the state is in control of funding schools’ general fund budgets which is done by a percentage from the state sales tax. He questioned why the council be given this power when the budget is created by the state.

The sole “no” vote against advocating for an elected school board came from Council vice-president Karen Conover, R-3rd, who felt it was not proper for the council to tell city residents how their school board should be structured.

“I’m really not happy with it. I think it’s up to the citizens of Valparaiso,” said Conover, who is the council representative for Center Twp. She said she was also upset that she did not know anything about the matter until Tuesday.

Absent from the vote was Council member Laura Blaney, D-at large, who arrived at the meeting later.

Whitten and Polarek said they hope to meet with the administrators of Valparaiso Schools regarding their budgets.

Radio funding request

In other business, it is likely the county will reach into the interest made from the 2007 sale of Porter hospital and use almost $1 million to fund system upgrades to the radio and pager communication systems for 17 of the county’s fire departments.

Although the council was not able to formally approve the money Tuesday since the request from the commissioners was not made in time for the council’s agenda deadline, it did cast a unanimous preliminary vote to purchase new equipment from Motorola Solutions for $985,520.

“We are not anything unless we can help out our emergency services,” said Conover.

The vote was made so the county’s Enhanced 911 Center can begin planning to put up five new transmitting/receiving stations and nine receiving-only stations throughout the county. The system would operate on channels that would meet the new narrow band rules of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

To spend the hospital interest, majority votes are needed from both the county commissioner board and the county council. The commissioners made their 3-0 vote last week and the council expects to hold an official vote at in July.

This amount would be the largest draw of the interest money. County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, suggested using the money in this way since it would go to help emergency services.

Also during the meeting, the council approved 7-0 an ordinance to transfer unallocated county income tax money to the 911 Rainy Day Fund.

Animal shelter

Lakeshore PAWS president Jeanne Sommer was invited to speak with the council on the current situation involving the county animal shelter. The commissioners last week announced their intentions to start negotiating with Lakeshore PAWS to have the organization run the future shelter.

Sommer, who formally served on the shelter advisory board, said the discussions on the agreement are in their infancy stage and the goal is to determine the feasibility of the operations. Sommer intends for the new shelter to be no-kill.

Whitten said he is willing to see this private-public agreement as he agreed the animals need to be looked after by those in the business of caring for animals. He asked Sommer to keep the council continuously updated on the negotiations.

“We’ll continue to work at it because it has been such a white elephant in the room,” he said.

Conover thanked Lakeshore PAWS for its effort to help with overcrowding at the shelter. She remarked on its progress saying “there has been a lot of actors” playing a role in changing the troubled facility around, giving credit to the current Shelter director Jon Thomas.

“We are not in the situation we were last year,” she said.

Sommer returned compliments to the council for holding discussions with groups on ways they could help fix the problems. “Thank you because you have been open to us. You’ve been looking at this for a solution,” Sommer said.

Meanwhile, Thomas approached the council requesting additionals for $7,000 in cleaning supplies, $3,000 in training and education and $6,000 to retain Chris Buckley as the attorney for the Shelter advisory board and animal control board.

Instead of approving additional amounts, the council opted to transfer the funds from the Shelter’s budgeted amount for part-time hourly work. Thomas said it would be okay to decrease that fund at this time. Biggs said Thomas could request more money for that fund if he ever needed to.

In other business:

• Unanimous approval was made for the county parks department to purchase a third tractor for $15,000. The tractor will be used for events and mowing.

• A $100,000 additional appropriation was approved to match a 100 percent reimbursable grant from the Indiana Department of Transportation to purchase signage for the regional trail network. The request was made by the county tourism bureau which is the contracting agency.

• The council set the first few dates for its upcoming budget hearings which will start a little earlier this year with a first reading tentatively scheduled for Aug. 21. Second readings will follow the week after starting with a review of the commissioners’ CEDIT budgets.


Posted 6/27/2012