ELKHART — With the primary election now less than one week away, Elkhart Community Schools held its second and final community meeting Tuesday night as the district seeks voter approval on a referendum to raise property taxes.
About 60 people attended the meeting, which was in the Elkhart Central High School cafeteria.
Many expressed concerns about why things are the way they are with school funding and whether the referendum is the appropriate response to solving the district’s issue.
The event began as the previous meeting – held April 18 – with Superintendent Steve Thalheimer giving an explanation of how state funding has changed over the past decade.
This change, he said, has created the need for a referendum in many school systems to supplement the funding they receive from the state and make up for the potential money it loses because of tax caps.
Elkhart Schools is requesting 58 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The measure would repeal an existing tax, approved by referendum in 2014, of 13.15 cents, ultimately raising the tax levy by 44.85 cents.
For a $106,000 home–the median price of an Elkhart home– that would increase property taxes by $165 a year with a homestead deduction, 35 percent supplemental deduction and mortgage deduction.
In total, the referendum would raise $20.3 million. Of that amount, $4.6 million is already factored in because of the existing referendum.
Thus, the new tax levy would raise almost $16 million in new revenue for the corporation over the course of eight years.
The new levy would be imposed from 2020 through 2027 should the referendum pass.
District leaders said, if the referendum passes, it would be used to provide funding in four categories: academic and education-related programs, managing class sizes, school safety initiatives, and attracting and retaining teachers and staff by offering competitive pay and insurance packages.
Note card questions
The crowd was given notecards and asked to write down their questions so everyone would have a chance to be heard.
Thalheimer read and answered each of the questions during the second half of the meeting.
One notecard question asked what future recourse is available if the referendum doesn’t pass and if it can be presented again.
Thalheimer said the referendum can be presented again in two years and during that time, he would anticipate that the district would continue to lose several dozen teachers, classrooms would be condensed and programs would diminish–all of which would impact the students.
“We would have to go into crisis mode,” he said. “And I don’t say these things to scare people, but we’d have to look at massively cutting people, cutting shifts of hourly employees and all of that would impact kids.”
Another notecard asked what will be the new starting teacher salary.
Although he couldn’t give a specific amount, Thalheimer emphasized that the district is shooting to offer teachers and staff a salary and insurance package competitive to neighboring districts.
“Many teachers have gone to neighboring districts that have more competitive salaries or better benefits packages,” Thalheimer said. “Or they are leaving education altogether because of how non-competitive teacher salaries are compared with the private industry.”
The 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.
In addition, the starting salaries for support staff at ECS were notably lower than surrounding districts with paraprofessionals earning an hourly rate of $9.51; cooks $8.11 and secretaries $11.67, according to information provided by the school district.
“We cannot begin bargaining and talking about specific numbers until Sept. 15,” he said. “State law doesn’t allow the teachers association and the district to enter into negotiations and declare anything coming out of that until a window between Sept. 15 and Nov. 15. Our goal will be as soon as those negotiations happen, then that becomes a matter of public record in the contract and we will track what those expenses are and how we’re spending those referendum dollars in those four categories so people can understand where that’s going.”
Someone wrote in asking how teacher raises will be sustained after eight years.
Thalheimer said the question at that point would be whether the district’s enrollment has gone up or stabilized. He said it’s also a function of the funding formula from local legislators, for example, if they’re increasing the amount per pupil or that’s going into the funding formula.
If those things are happening, then coming back and asking for a renewal of the referendum could be at a smaller scale than what it is, he said.
“But what people have to realize is when we have a property tax cap system in place like we do and the state dictates what those are ... Indiana has become a referendum state – more and more districts have to look at doing referenda in order to just survive. So while homeowners may love the property tax piece, and nobody likes to pay more taxes, we’re arriving at a point where more and more school districts are having to do that and that’s where we’ve landed.”
Thalheimer said the board, under the recommendation of Interim Superintendent Mark Mow, approved plans to reduce or reclassify 10 administrative positions.
The reductions will go into effect at the end of the school year once contracts for those individuals are complete and would provide ongoing savings of about $1.1 million, Thalheimer said.
The district made another cut of $1.3 million by reconfiguring schedules, supplies and other line-item budgets, Thalheimer said, making for an overall budget cut of $2.4 million approved in December.
As of now, Thalheimer, who became superintendent in January, said he’s hesitant to make any more cuts until he learns more about the impact they could have on students.
After the meeting, some attendees said they thought their questions and concerns were met and feel more confident in voting in favor of the referendum, and for some, the referendum was still a tough sell.
Rod Hohman said the meeting didn’t change his stance on opposing the referendum.
He said he’s spoken to many teachers who’ve indicated that work climate and culture as the primary reasons for why they left, not pay.
“I think the idea (of the referendum) is to throw money at something that’s more of a cultural problem than a financial problem,” he said.
Another resident, Marcia Hiatt, said her biggest concern coming into the meeting was whether the district would use the money it gets from the referendum for the salaries and benefits of teachers and staff.
But after listening to Thalheimer, she said she feels her concerns were met.
“I have faith that the administration is going to do what they said they’re going to do,” she said. “If I find out to the contrary, I will be one of the biggest opponents against another referendum, but I think it’s going to be a good as long as everything that was presented to us tonight happens.”
David Kelly said he came to the meeting completely uninformed about the referendum and found the meeting to be very helpful.
“It’s definitely more clear to me why they’re asking for the referendum,” he said.
However, Kelly said he still hasn’t reached a verdict on whether he’s for or against the referendum.
“I still have some thinking to do,” he said. “I have a fifth grader who goes to Eastwood, so It’s like do I vote for him, or do I vote for me and be a stingy taxpayer – I still got to figure that out.”
The primary election is May 7.