When a spate of late August tornado warnings sent Hoosiers across the city scrambling for cover one Wednesday afternoon, the students and staff at Westlane Middle School in Washington Township were fighting two battles: heed the sirens — and dodge flooded hallways.
Students had been marshalled from their classroom to a safe hallway when tornado sirens started to blare, but the pounding rain outside penetrated the building through leaks in the roof and other vulnerable spots in the building’s exterior, soaking the carpet and forcing the school to swiftly relocate students to another hallway where they could be both safe and dry.
Stacy Lozer was there that day to pick up her son and says the drenched carpet and mild chaos she saw that day are a driving reason why she’s been actively campaigning for a school tax increase that Washington Township voters will consider on Nov. 8.
The vote in Washington Township over two measures that would raise taxes to pay for teacher and staff salaries and for major building upgrades and construction may not have the significance of the presidential race at the top of the ballot. But for students in the district, it’s a crucial vote, she said.
“We had to move kids out of flooded hallways during a tornado,” said Lozer, who is one of three coordinators of Washington Township’s political action committee working to educate the public about the referenda. “We’re not looking for the Taj Mahal. We’re looking to re-invest and rebuild.”
The two referenda on the Washington Township ballot — which total about $230 million over seven years — are among 11 ballot initiatives that Indiana school districts are considering in November.
As Indiana’s school funding system has shifted over the past few decades away from local dollars supporting local schools to a more centralized system in which money comes from the state, districts like Washington Township with growing enrollment and aging schools have come to depend on voters to supplement their available funds.
“We’re kind of at that point where we need to be responsible and we need to step up,” Lozer said. “The way school funding has changed, it has really tied the hands of districts to make cost-effective decisions.”
This won’t be the first year Washington Township schools have asked voters to approve a tax hike — but it is the first time they’re asking for significant amounts of money. Between the two tax increases, a family with a home at the district’s median market value and median assessed value — $173,200 and $80,330 respectively — would be looking at paying about $315 more per year in property taxes. That’s a whopping 76 percent increase that would bring the district’s total tax rate on assessed home value to about 90 cents, up from 51 cents.
If the measure passes, the district says it will upgrade technology, renovate existing schools and build a new elementary school.
For some Washington Township residents, the tax hit is just too high.
“We do need to correct some of the things that are going on in the schools but (the district is) not considering the people who are on fixed incomes,” said Penny Bigelow, who’s lived in the district for 40 years and has been active during district elections.
Bigelow was part of the committee that gave feedback on plans the district put together on what the referenda would support. She thinks the district should definitely update school safety and technology, but building a whole new school is a step too far, particularly because some of the growth the district has seen has been from students coming in from other areas, she said. According to state data from last school year, 793 students transferred into Washington Township from other districts.
“We could save $23 million if we didn’t have to build another elementary school,” Bigelow said. “We only get a set amount (of money per student) from the state, and the rest of the cost of educating that student is borne by Washington Township residents.”
Bigelow said she worries the district isn’t taking proper care of its buildings — and that in six years or so, they’ll ask voters for even more money.
Of 16 referenda proposed by Marion County districts since 2009, when lawmakers put in place caps on how much homeowners could pay in property taxes for public services, just three have failed — one in Perry Township in 2009 and two in Franklin Township in 2009 and 2011, according to the Indiana Secretary of State’s website.
Although the tax caps helped stabilized tax bills for homeowners, they put schools in a tough spot, especially for areas where property taxes still support the majority of projects, like with transportation or construction.
Lozer said the district’s last referendum in 2010 was tax-neutral, so voters saw little to no effect on their taxes. This time it’s significantly more, she admitted, but it’s long past time to make improvements, especially for classrooms.
If the referenda do not pass, district officials say they will have to cut $4 million from the district’s operating budget. More than 100 teachers, administrators and other staff members would be fired, and programs to support academics would be cut.
“This is a time when our numbers are growing,” Lozer said. “People are moving into the district, they are investing in our neighborhoods, they are investing in our homes, and if this doesn’t pass it’s really going to cause some new reductions that I don’t think anyone wants to see.”
Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.