ELKHART — Like other public schools in Indiana, Elkhart Community Schools has less money than it did before the state mandated a cap on property taxes starting in 2009. And like other schools, Elkhart has a strategy in place to deal with the situation.
“The strategy is, we have just decreased what we are doing,” Doug Hasler, executive director of support service for Elkhart Community Schools, said.
That means that more students are walking to school, some up to two miles one way. It means that students who do catch a bus to school may have to walk up to half a mile to their bus stop.
There are fewer Elkhart buses on the road now — less than 100, where there used to be 120. And the buses that are still picking up students are older.
“We have not bought any buses this year, and we are likely to not buy any buses in 2014 either,” Hasler said, noting that Indiana says a bus is good for 12 years.
“From a short-term standpoint, we have a very high quality maintenance and repair program, and I don’t think we are putting students at risk,” he added. “But you can’t do that forever.”
The corporation is not able to maintain some of the school buildings, because there’s not enough money in the capital projects fund — one of the funds affected by property tax caps.
Any repair or maintenance projects must be paid for out of the capital projects fund. Capital projects also pays for school technology and utilities.
“We are doing very little, if any, roof replacements,” Hasler said. “We are not doing mechanical system improvements. The funding just isn’t there.”
The corporation has about $1.4 million less in the capital projects fund than it would have if not for tax caps.
“We are not trying to build palaces,” Hasler said. “We are trying to maintain what we have, and we do not have the dollars to do so.”
The corporation is considering a referendum — meaning a tax hike for local residents, if it’s approved — to help meet some of its financial needs.
On Jan. 6, the school board will host a public hearing to discuss the specifics of what a referendum would mean for the corporation — how much money is needed, and what projects need funding the most.
Hasler said that the referendum proposal could include projects that the capital projects fund had traditionally paid for. But high on the list of priorities for the district is transportation.
“We are looking to replace losses (to the transportation fund), which are currently at $1 million but could go up to $2 million in 2014, and go back to our former walk zone of 1.5 miles,” Hasler said.
Superintendent Rob Haworth has said that the issue of transportation is close to his heart, and he hopes that a referendum to fund transportation operating costs for a period of seven years will be supported by taxpayers.
Hasler said that the corporation feels it is “struggling with something that we cannot change” when it comes to tax caps. Administration is working with local and state legislators on solutions that might help schools, he said, but for Elkhart, for now — “We see the referendum process as the only option we have.”
The public is invited to attend a hearing on the referendum at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 6, at the J.C. Rice Educational Services Center, 2720 California Road.