ELKHART — Elkhart Community Schools will ask voters to approve a tax hike on the May 7 ballot.
School officials are seeking an additional $0.4415, eight-year property tax levy in the primary election.
The board voted unanimously last week to place the referendum question on the ballot to support a tax levy increase that school officials said would provide much-needed revenue.
According to the resolution approved Tuesday, the district is requesting 58 cents per $100 assessed value. This would replace the current operating tax referendum of $0.1385, which would ultimately raise the tax levy by $0.4415.
Superintendent Steve Thalheimer said the proposed referendum will specifically address funding for attracting and retaining teachers, academic and educationally related programs, managing class sizes and school safety initiatives.
Thalheimer said the state has changed the way schools receive operational support from local property taxes making it difficult to retain teachers.
“That (the way schools receive support) shifted in 2010 to where it no longer was based on property taxes but comes from state foundational support that comes from Indianapolis, which is collected through income tax and sales tax," Thalheimer said. "… so that became directed and controlled by Indy rather than as a function of property taxes as it had been before. So when the state decides to cut as they did in 2010 with $300 million less, then those are funds that aren’t directed to us because the state is needing to balance its budget so that’s where we received less money and that continued for multiple years afterward.”
One major area where the district recognizes a competitive deficiency is insurance benefits. With the successful passage of this referendum, all staff can benefit from improved medical plan contributions from the district, the proposal states.
"Currently only approximately half of ECS employees choose coverage through the ECS medical plan due to the high cost," school documents state. "At other school districts, approximately two-thirds of employees choose the district plan. Of the ECS employees who chose ECS insurance, the majority select the “single” plan due to the cost of the family plan. During staff exit interviews, insurance is often cited as a reason for leaving."
The state of Indiana regulates which areas of the budget can pay teachers. For example, a teacher cannot be paid from the Transportation fund. State General Fund (now called the Education Fund as of 2019) dollars provided to ECS have gone up an average of one-fifth of one percent each year.
The current starting salary for a teacher at Elkhart Community Schools is $36,350—lower than the majority of surrounding school districts. It’s below Penn-Harris-Madison: $40,350; Concord: $39,000; Mishawaka: $38,000; Goshen: $36,900; South Bend: $36,838; and Baugo: $36,500. It’s higher than Wa-Nee: $35,800 and Middlebury: $34,827.
“Many teachers have gone to neighboring districts that have more competitive salaries or better benefit packages,” Thalheimer said. “Or, they are leaving education all-together because of how non-competitive teacher salaries are to the private industry.”
With successful passage of the 2019 referendum, the owner of a $106,400 home, the median price of a home in Elkhart, would see a monthly increase of about $13.80 in their bill, which would equate to about $165.54 a year.
The overall referendum will raise $20.3 million. Of that amount, $4.6 million is already factored in because of the current referendum. Thus, the new tax levy would raise almost $16 million in new revenue for the corporation over the course of eight years.
Should the operating referendum prove to be successful, Thalheimer said the new levy would be imposed from 2020 through 2027.
If the referendum passes, Thalheimer said although it wouldn't take effect until 2020, the officials would be able to budget going into the fall knowing they'd be able to do increases.
“Some of the things happening now is we’re having preliminary conversations about what the new compensation package would look like given that there would be funds available for increases and what that could potentially do to the insurance,” Thalheimer said. “So those preliminary conversations are already happening so we would be able to enter the Fall and formally negotiate and be ready to put that new system in place. Also, considerations of if those funds were available, what that means for non-certified and support staff as well.”
If it doesn’t pass, Thalheimer said, officials would have to look at the district’s enrollment in the fall and determine if it’s up or down and what the foundational amount would be.
“But then we’d have to look at continued flat lines or cuts to personnel and other spending freezes to be able to maintain that educational fund at the level that we’re able to support.”
Although a tax hike isn't preferred, Thalheimer said it provides an opportunity to take the district "into our own hands."
"Right now, we are totally subject to the whims of what happens through funding in Indianapolis," he said. "The funds have not been there to be able to allow us to pay our people properly have caused a drain in talent and it’s the biggest challenge we face as a school district.”
“When you look around us and you look at other communities, other communities have made that choice to invest in their schools and invest in their people because our children are our most important thing,” he continued. “So what I would ask everyone as this referendum rolls out is to please ask the questions and inquire find out what it means and let us explain to you the good things that are already happening within the district … but also what we can do as we move forward to make sure we're doing the best job we can for the students and the families of Elkhart."
Board member Rocky Enfield said the referendum is needed. He said in order to have a school system that strives for excellence, it must have the “best and brightest” teachers it can find.
“We are working in a deficit right now,” he said. “We’re losing great teachers every year and we will lose more if this referendum is not passed.”
“As a business owner, I pay a lot of taxes," Enfield, a State Farm insurance agent, continued, "but I’m willing to pay more so that our community can succeed because, without great schools, our community will fail. So, if you want to have a great community, you need to support great schools and it’s because of this, I’ll be supporting this referendum.”
Board member Rodney Dale encouraged attendees to help spread the word and educate the community about the referendum.
“Everyone has a lot of work to do as far as spreading the word, making sure the vote gets out, making sure when those ballots come in May that people get out and vote for this referendum so we can continue as a school district to move in a positive direction,” he said.