Two local businessmen are funding an effort to defeat Washington Township Schools referendums that seek to raise $285 million for construction projects and $16 million for operating expenses.
GOP heavyweight Al Hubbard—who co-founded E&A Industries, served in the White House under the George H.W. Bush and the George W. Bush administrations, and was once the Indiana Republican Party chairman—and Devin Anderson, CEO for E&A Industries, are self-funding a digital opposition to the referendums.
Two public questions will appear on the ballots of voters in Washington Township for the June 2 primary election.
The operating referendum asks voters to allow the school district to impose a property tax rate of 25 cents (up from 11 cents) for every $100 of assessed value for the next eight years to provide funding intended to improve student safety, increase student support services, expand academic support programs and retain teachers and staff.
The second question asks voters to allow the school district to issue bonds to finance $285 million in construction projects. The bonds are estimated to increase the property tax rate for debt service by $0.3172 per $100 of assessed valuation.
Washington Township, which serves 11,000 students in the northern part of Marion County, is among 14 districts across the state pushing referendums to fund more pay for staff, construction projects and safety initiatives. A referendum is a public question to voters that allows school districts to collect property tax funding above the state’s property tax caps.
If the referendums in Washington Township are approved, a homeowner with a house assessed at $200,000 would pay about $37 more per month, or $444 a year, in additional property taxes.
The measures come 3-1/2 years years after the district passed similar referendums in 2016.
At that time, the district asked to impose a tax rate of 11 cents for every $100 of assessed value for operating expenses. It also asked to issue $185 million in debt for construction projects.
The new operating referendum would replace the 2016 operating referendum, which is set to expire in 2023. The district has said if the 2016 operating referendum is not renewed, the district will be forced to cut funding for 50 to 60 teachers, two to four administrators and 15 to 20 classified staff members over the next two years.
The new construction referendum would allow the district to complete $47 million of facility updates originally identified for the 2016 campaign that were never completed because of rising construction costs. Another $238 million would go to new construction projects that include expanding student learning spaces, adding student safety improvements, replacing building systems and constructing a new Northview Middle School.
Proponents of the referendum say the tax increase is necessary because the state does not provide funding for capital construction or renovation projects for public schools. A referendum is the only option for coming up with the funding that is necessary to update district buildings, many of which were built in the 1950s and 1960s, they say. Additionally, they say, Washington Township Schools has been hurt by changes to education funding over the past decade, leaving it with more expenses but less state funding.
Anderson and Hubbard both reside in Washington Township and say they did not hear about the referendums until recently. They contend the proposals haven’t been publicized well, especially during a time when many voters have been more concerned with the pandemic than other issues.
Anderson said the proposals are “massively too large,” especially since the district raised taxes less than four years ago for similar reasons. Should the 2020 construction referendum be approved, the district will have issued roughly $470 million in new debt over a four-year period, raising property taxes to pay for it and the $16 million operating referendum.
Anderson said that is a “shocking number.”
“What we feel our job is is to raise awareness of this referendum,” Anderson said. “For the last three months, people have been occupied elsewhere. We’re all worried about jobs, families … very few people are aware of it.”
Hubbard said he already voted by mail. When he got his ballot, he became concerned because the question does not provide the percentage property taxes will increase because of the referendum. If his own math is correct, he said, property taxes will increase by 56%.
Joe Licata, chief business officer for Washington Township Schools, said that figure likely looks at only the school portion of a property owner’s tax bill. Washington Township has a relatively low tax rate compared with the surrounding area, in part because of high assessed valuations, he said.
Anderson and Hubbard launched their “say no” campaign last week, running digital ads on social media sites, such as Facebook, and in local newspapers.
The Washington Township School Board in December passed resolutions to place the referendums on this year’s ballot. Since then, the district has held a few public informational sessions on the proposals.
T. Ray Phillips, a parent of two Washington Township students and a member of the VoteYes4WTS campaign, said many of the school district’s buildings are old and in need of repair, and the only way to fund those projects is to ask the voters to foot the bill.
“This is meant to bring all the buildings up to where they should be so they can last another 20 or 30 years,” he said.
The campaign says the referendum objectives are to improve student safety and achievement, provide better pay to attract and retain “outstanding” teachers and staff, make continued investments in schools and athletic facilities and protect property values.
Because of changes to public school funding, Washington Township Schools has seen its state funding reduced by $42 million while enrollment, and operational costs, have increased, the school says.
Phillips said the district is more diverse than some of its northern neighbors and has unique challenges it always meets. The operating referendum will continue to ensure the school can meet the needs of all of its students, he said.
Licata said the tax rates included in the referendum question are based on bond interest rates of 5%. Rates on recent bonds have been lower.
“If we aren’t successful, we still need to do the work at some point in time. … It’s going to get more expensive. … That’s just going to make this problem even more insurmountable,” Licata said. “Support this referendum because it’s what the district needs right now. I understand the climate we’re in. It’s a very difficult time to ask people to vote to increase their tax rate. I understand that.”