ELKHART — About 200 people gathered on Monday morning, Feb. 17, to experience first-hand just how far some Elkhart Community Schools students walk to school every day.
They hiked from Monger Elementary to Central High School, toting "Yes4Elkhart" signs and keeping each other's spirits high by chatting and laughing.
But they admitted that their walk doesn't actually represent what kids go through.
What will Elkhart's referendum pay for? Elkhart Community Schools is hoping to fund these things through a referendum:
Safety upgrades for some of the school buildings, including more cameras and restructuring of classrooms and entryways.
Roof replacements and other fixes to the outside of buildings.
Eight more buses, effectively ending the two-mile walk zone and ending bus routes longer than one hour.
What will it cost?
The school corporation estimates that it will spend about $21.4 million. If both referendum questions get the approval of voters, taxpayers will pay $0.186 per $100 of assessed property value.
Students aren't escorted by the city's emergency management department, lights blazing. Students don't walk in daylight, at least not in the winter. And students have walked to school in temperatures much colder than Monday morning's 16 degrees.
"I'm not wearing my winter coat," a red-faced middle school teacher, Krista Riblet, told the crowd of walkers at the end of their journey after Superintendent Rob Haworth asked for testimonials. "I chose not to wear my coat because that's how students show up to school every day."
Riblet wasn't the only teacher eager to share the needs of their students.
Jennifer Wakeman, a Woodland Elementary teacher, told those gathered that her classroom is built in a "open concept" style. The school corporation has said that part of the referendum money would be used to enclose these classrooms for safety reasons.
"I don't have a door and a wall," Wakeman said. "When we have a lockdown, we have to hide in a corner."
There's 14 classrooms that are designed that way at Woodland, she said.
"We have a lot to fight for," she added.
Julie Bird, marketing coordinator for the Yes4Elkhart political action committee, said the safety shortcomings of some of the districts' buildings are a major issue.
"If a gunman got into our kids' school and we didn't do everything we could, shame on us," she said.
She acknowledged that some Elkhart families may find it difficult to pay more in taxes to support Elkhart's referendum. But she said the schools are worth the price.
"This is an amazing town. It's a wonderful place to raise children," she said. "We can afford this."
Superintendent Rob Haworth, who stirred the crowd with speeches at the beginning and the end of the walk, remarked on the number of people who walked.
"People will say they will show up, but today they showed up," he said.
The success of the event is probably due to a strong social media push from the Yes4Elkhart group, he said. But going forward, the campaign also needs to reach older people — the ones who are most likely to show up at the polls.
Elkhart's referendum questions will be on the May 6 ballot.