School district closes funding gap with help from Fishers, township

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Hamilton Southeastern Schools is selling three parcels of surplus land to the town of Fishers and Fall Creek Township, raising much-needed cash for the growing school district’s operations.

Fishers Town Council voted 6-0 Monday to take almost $1.3 million from cash reserves to buy two properties: about 4 acres at 131st Street and Cumberland Road, and 3 acres at 136th Street and Prairie Baptist Road.

Earlier, the Fall Creek Township OK’d an $800,000 deal for 20 acres at 101st Street and Cyntheanne Road—where the town already is building Flat Fork Creek Park. Township board member Doug Allman said the additional land will become part of the park.

The school district also agreed to sell 2 acres at 101st Street and Olio Road to local developer Gary Warstler for $370,000, said HSE Chief Financial Officer Mike Reuter.

All told, the real estate deals should give the schools a $2.4 million-plus financial boost, wiping out what remains of a two-year, $5 million operating deficit officials have been addressing since last year.

A budget study committee came up with $2.8 million in cost savings for the 2014-2015 school year, Reuter said, and the district decided to sell unneeded assets to avoid cutting personnel or programming.

“These are good business deals for all parties,” he said. “And it shows how well the schools and the town and the township can work together to benefit the community.”

State-mandated tax caps have put pressure on all public budgets, but fast-growing Fishers nevertheless has been able to build up reserves—about $6 million more than it is required to keep on hand—that it’s using for special expenses like replacing the town’s salt barn and mechanical repairs at Town Hall.

“This is in no way a handout. It is a fair exchange,” said Town Councilor Stuart Easley, who suggested the collaboration in April and pitched the deal to council on Monday. “This is all about the greater community and our stewardship of the public interest.”

The council began talking about helping HSE with its cash-flow woes last spring. All communities have a vested interest in their educational facilities since good schools drive economic development, and that’s especially true in the northern suburbs.  

As IBJ reported last spring, several local governments are taking steps to help boost school funding. Westfield is paying $2.5 million to help move a high school football stadium, for example, and Zionsville is sharing tax-increment financing revenue.

Locals also are talking with state lawmakers about a more permanent fix to funding inequities they say leave growing school districts at a disadvantage. Last year, Hamilton County municipal leaders joined forces with their public school districts to lobby for changes, and similar collaboration is expected in the upcoming legislative session.

Republican leaders in the Statehouse have said school funding is a top priority for the long budget-writing session that begins next month.

Fishers plans to use a portion of the property at 131st at Cumberland—once envisioned as the site of an administration center—to build a roundabout, likely selling whatever is left after construction. The land at 136th and Prairie Baptist is expected to accommodate a future fire station.

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