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5/8/2014 9:44:00 AM
Mixed feelings over approval of referendum for school tax hike in Hebron

Amy Lavalley, Post-Tribune Correspondent

VALPARAISO — A couple of Susan Panayi’s customers at Suzy’s Diner, just across the parking lot from the Hebron schools, came in for breakfast Wednesday, and she heard what they had to say about the outcome of Tuesday’s referendum on a tax increase for the schools.

“They’re not happy with it. They think it’s going to hurt the businesses in Hebron, and until I see it I don’t know,” she said. “At this point, I’m going to have to wait and see how it affects the taxes.”

The referendum proposal, which passed by 23 votes, will raise the property tax rate by 21 cents per $100 of assessed value to bring in an extra $479,000 per year over seven years. The higher rate will cost the owner of a home with a market value of $155,000 about $144 more a year, according to the Boone Township school district.

A measure a year ago, seeking a 23-cent rate increase, failed by only four votes, forcing cuts districtwide, and school officials said more cuts would have followed had this year’s attempt failed.

School employees and administrators often eat at Panayi’s retro-style café, she said, and she makes donations for school events. But as both a Hebron homeowner and businesswoman, she’s unsure what the tax hike will mean for her financially.

For Metropolitan School District Superintendent George Letz and Mike Reick, co-chairman of the Committee for Hebron Children, a political action committee established to promote the tax increase, what Tuesday’s result means is simple — no more school cuts and, perhaps over time, the restoration of what was lost this school year.

Letz has attributed the district’s financial woes to a combination of the economic recession, which put residential growth on hold, and state cuts to education. The first disbursement of funds from the higher tax rate won’t be available until June 2015, but Letz has said the school district will soldier on until the funds are available.

He said the support for the tax increase is a huge boost to the school community.

“It lifts morale. People on the staff now know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s going to take awhile to get back where we were before the cuts this year,” Letz said.

He said district officials can plan how to bring back some of the 21 courses that were cut at the high school, as well as adding a teacher or two at the elementary school to reduce class sizes.

But an issue that has divided the community for two years remains. On Wednesday morning, election signs both pro and con on the referendum measure still dotted Main Street.

“It was so tight,” Reick said. “I’ve got friends who voted against this, and I can understand their frustration.”

Because Hebron is a small town, the schools — with their sports events, musical performances and other activities almost every weekend — are the center of the community, Letz said.

“I think the only way to win people back is if the schools continue to do well academically and to provide events people like to go to,” he said. “Over a period of time, there may still be grumbling about taxes, but they will still see we have good schools here.”

Letz, who is going on 13 years with the Hebron schools, has said he plans to retire but has not said when. He wanted to see the tax increase approved so the district would be in a better position for the next superintendent.

“I didn’t want to leave it the way it was, and not because we weren’t good stewards of the funds, because we were,” he said, adding the district made small cuts along the way until larger cuts became necessary for this school year.

Back at Suzy’s Diner, Joe and Carolynn Aguilar said they voted for the tax hike, even though they don’t have kids in the schools.

“I’m for public education — police, fire and teachers, you don’t mess with those three,” Joe, a Gary firefighter for 36 years, said.

He didn’t like the education cuts this school year, saying that if generations over time had not supported education, “it would still be in a one-room schoolhouse.”

“The only way you’re going to grow as a town is by having good schools,” his wife said.

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• Tax hike advocates for Mt. Vernon schools pin homes on May 6 vote
• Eminence schools will stay open thanks to overwhelming 'yes' referendum votes
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