Wednesday, November 26, 2014


The Yes4Elkhart campaign group hosted a public meeting about Elkhart's referendum at Pierre Moran Middle School in Elkhart on Monday, March 10, 2014. (James Buck / The Elkhart Truth) (Buy this photo)
Vote yes in Elkhart, Concord

Posted on May 4, 2014 at 5:48 a.m.

Yes4Elkhart!

Vote no twice!

Yes for Concord Kids!

Vote no in Concord!

The battle lines formed long ago. Now it’s time to vote.

Approve the Elkhart Community Schools referenda for transportation and capital projects. In the Concord school district, approve the referendum for general operations.

Property tax caps and the Great Recession combined to strangle funding for Elkhart and Concord schools. Elkhart Community Schools lost $16.6 million between 2008 and 2013, with an additional $6 million loss anticipated this year. Concord lost $10 million over the same period, with another $4.2 million loss expected in 2014.

Deft management by both districts kept the cuts from affecting student performance, but you can only defer spending on transportation, staffing, technology and infrastructure for so long. We’ve reached the point where we either replace the money we lost or we watch as our schools begin to implode — and with them, Elkhart.

State law allows school districts to ask voters for additional funding. Elkhart put two initiatives on Tuesday’s ballot. One, spread over seven years, funds transportation and operations. The other spans 19 years and addresses building security maintenance. Combined, they’ll raise up to $47 million for ECS.

And the impact on your tax bill? Slightly more than 18 cents for every $100 in assessed valuation.

Concord, which overlaps with Goshen and Elkhart, faces an even stiffer challenge. So, justifiably, it takes a more aggressive approach toward funding.

Out of 292 public school districts in the state, the Legislative Services Agency ranks Concord eighth in percentage of lost local revenue. CCS cannot afford to slowly restore spending over two decades. It seeks $28 million over seven years.

For a property owner, that works out to 40 cents per $100 in valuation.

Opponents make the same arguments against both districts. They claim there’s waste, extravagant spending and bloated administrations.

There isn’t.

They warn that the taxes will become permanent, like the wheel tax.

They can’t — they’re limited to seven years in Concord, seven and 19 years in Elkhart.

They claim people can’t find the money. Especially people on fixed incomes.

Whether on fixed incomes or not, homeowners started enjoying significant tax savings in 2008. Many will come out ahead even if the referenda pass.

Opponents also need to remember that although Elkhart sewer rates increased in 2013 and 2014, rate hikes to cover the cost of a massive improvement project end in 2015. And, at about roughly the same time, a number of bond payments in both Elkhart and Concord begin falling off the books.

That mitigates local property tax bills.

Every generation of Americans invests in the education of those who follow. Even if our own children or grandchildren do not attend public schools, we willingly pay to ensure that all students, regardless of class, color or religion, can obtain the instruction they need to become productive members of society.

That sense of obligation, that readiness to invest, propelled America to greatness. But it also sustained this community for the last five years.

The Great Recession flattened Elkhart County. In 2008, a reporter for The New York Times called us “the white-hot center of the meltdown of the American economy.”

Yet today, five years after unemployment nicked 20 percent, we’re almost completely back. The county’s jobless rate dropped to 5.8 percent in March, its lowest level since early 2008.

Why?

Because, in part, we’d built public school systems in Elkhart and Concord that attracted new employers. Our schools contributed to the recovery.

But today, given the funding losses, the badly outdated technology, the faculty attrition and the deferred building maintenance throughout both districts, the schools could not drive a similar comeback.

It is time to reinvest.

Let’s cut to the chase. Some people simply do not trust the superintendents and boards to act responsibly with additional money. Opponents worry that as the economy comes back, assessed valuation increases and the schools gain more funding from traditional property taxes, Concord and Elkhart will burn through every last dime of the spending authority they seek Tuesday.

Both superintendents — Dr. Robert Haworth in Elkhart and Wayne Stubbs in Concord — insist that won't happen. In fact, the ECS Board of Trustees approved a January resolution freezing the overall 2015 district tax rate at this year’s level.

Still, what happens if the county approves a Local Option Income Tax, potentially benefitting the districts? Or if property values improve? Haworth and Stubbs pledge to reduce their tax rates accordingly.

As a community, we will hold them to their word.

We need the Elkhart and Concord schools to do more than survive. We need them to excel. But they can no longer do that without additional funding.

Vote to approve all three referenda Tuesday.