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Washington Township tests anti-tax mood

October 22, 2007

A north-side Marion County school district is reigniting the property-tax furor by rolling out a plan to spend as much as $200 million on renovations and new construction.

Washington Township is the first school district in the county to unveil major capital projects since residents howled in protest last summer against property-tax increases that averaged 35 percent.

Gov. Mitch Daniels in July gave residents a reprieve, ordering that the county's tax bills be frozen at 2006 levels while all property is reassessed. Meanwhile, Indiana legislators are scrambling to put together a property-tax reform plan that provides relief statewide.

With all the uncertainty and concern, the timing is terrible to launch major capital projects, said Joanna Franklin, whose 16 children have either gone through the school system or are still in it.

Franklin said the large number of elderly people in the township can't afford the extra taxes to pay for the projects. She said the costs also would strain other residents.

"You're going to have a ghost town here," Franklin said, predicting the costs would spur further migration to lower-tax areas outside Marion County.

But others say Superintendent James Mervilde's plan is long overdue.

"I know my taxes are going up, and I'd rather see them go to my schools than to a lot of other things they could go to," said Leslie Kleschick, mother of two Northview Middle School students. "The buildings are in bad shape. They're old. The roofs leak. They need to be fixed."

Mervilde this month proposed selling up to $200 million in bonds to pay for upgrades at most of the district's 14 schools. Three schools--two elementaries and one middle school--would close, while one middle school would be built.

The district likely would issue bonds in phases. Once all have been issued, the owner of a home assessed at $200,000 might pay between $380 and $400 more a year in taxes to cover payments, the district says.

"We don't want to scare people with numbers that might change," said Joe Licata, the district's chief business officer, stressing that his estimates are tentative. He said residents likely would see no tax impact for several years.

Mervilde, who became superintendent in January 2006, said the timing is unfortunate but unavoidable.

Eight of the district's schools haven't had major renovations in more than 20 years, Mervilde said. Another five have gone more than 10 years. Age is a huge factor, he said, noting that eight schools are at least 40 years old.

"It's clear our property tax system is broken," he said. "But it's also clear that in Washington Township, we have a responsibility to provide adequate school buildings for the students. We're not trying to build palaces in the cornfield."

Even before this summer's uprising over property taxes, pricey school construction projects had become a contentious issue in Indiana. In his first State of the State address in 2005, Daniels said school districts had put buildings ahead of learning.

Eugene White, then Washington Township's superintendent, responded by calling Daniels "a liar." White, now head of Indianapolis Public Schools, later apologized.

A voter survey released by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce this month found that 27 percent of respondents believed excessive school-construction spending was one of the causes of this year's tax increases.

"Clearly, the voters are not in the mood for more capital spending funded by property taxes," said chamber President Kevin Brinegar. "So [school officials] may have a difficult row to hoe."

Participants in the poll suggested that if the governor can't fix the problem, they--as voters--will.

"One interpretation of that is the project likely will generate new interest in running for the school board," he said.

In fact, it already has.

Franklin said she's so frustrated with the superintendent's plan that she's decided to run for the school board next May.

"He's definitely not thinking about the population of these neighborhoods," she said.

Opponents made their voices heard the last time the district unveiled major capital projects. White several years ago proposed $90 million in projects. After residents filed for a remonstrance--something they'll likely also do this time around--the two sides negotiated down to $50 million.

Critics of Mervilde's plan note that a report issued by the school district just a month after he came aboard said "all education facilities rate good to excellent."

"I can't fathom why they're doing this now," said Rosalie Lavelle, co-founder of Washington Township Concerned Citizens and mother of four children who have attended schools in the district. "To suggest these buildings need this amount of work means they've been neglected for 50 years. And clearly that's just not true based on the earlier report."

Mervilde said work done on that study was flawed.

"For that earlier study, we did not have a good sense other than what people had told us," he explained. "We knew we had some HVAC work to do and knew our buildings were old. The report was based on what our people said."

To do its own evaluation, the district hired local firm CSO Architects, which rated schools on maintenance efficiency, building code compliance, safety, and educational adequacy. Many schools scored poorly in multiple categories. Mervilde said the district can't wait for the outcome of the property-tax-reform debate to begin addressing the problems. The chamber's Brinegar said the superintendent will face stiff headwinds.

"It might be called by some a brave move given all the attention lately over property taxes," he said. "Hopefully, it's not rooted in arrogance."

Added Penny Bigelow, a 31-year resident: "I think they've greatly misunderstood the depth of the anger among property owners."

If opponents follow through with a remonstrance, the fate of the projects would hinge on which side gathered more signatures.

Opponents already have many residents in their corner, but so do supporters.

"I understand these are necessary steps to keep our schools going and maintain a high qualify of education," said Hope Power, a former president of the Crooked Creek Elementary School parent-teacher organization.

"It's just like your house; you wouldn't let it fall into disrepair and move on. You need to keep it up if you want to attract good people to your neighborhood. I have to trust that [district officials are] doing a good, thorough survey and that they know what the future needs will be."

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