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11/8/2017 12:29:00 PM
'Doing nothing not an option:' West Clark schools voters reject $95 million referendum

Erin Walden, News and Tribune

CLARK COUNTY — Voters rejected West Clark Schools’ $95 million referendum on Tuesday, leaving leaders to re-evaluate their plan for the district and its growing list of needs.

“To say that I wasn’t disappointed wouldn’t be the truth,” Superintendent Chad Schenck said following the results. “We’ve poured over this for several years and now the taxpayers have spoken.

“There are things that need to be done immediately and not just at Silver Creek.”

The referendum aimed to solve problems that were mounting in the district for years. Now that it’s gone, those problems remain to be dealt with, possibly through another referendum or consolidation, or by dissolving the district.

One key issue has been the district policy on student transfers. Each outof- district transfer student brings around $6,000 annually to the school, something that benefits students across all three campuses according to Schenck.

“There’s one checkbook,” he’s repeated in past board and input meetings.

Accepting those transfers helps bring money into the district and balance out the cost operating the smaller campuses, but the policy drew somev criticism as enrollment at Silver Creek ballooned and in-district transfers were not permitted.

The board put a hold on accepting those transfers in spring 2015 and as a result, the number of out-of-district students fell to just under 400 from nearly 500.

he board reinstated the policy in 2017, but during each of those two years, 100 students and $600,000 were turned away.

“The perception was that [those students] was what is causing us to have to build. That couldn’t be further from the truth, the damage was already done,” Schenck said.

The failed project would have added eased overcrowding at Silver Creek and made room for future students at the campus, accommodating both those from outside the district and forecasted growth. Additional classrooms at Henryville Jr./Sr. High School would have accounted for predicted growth in that area, as well.

Bringing facilities up to date and providing more space would have postured the district for out-of-district transfers as well as families looking for a place to call home, resulting in more funds and making it easier to spread resources across the campuses.

“...you will not see your cash balance grow unless we position ourselves as a district to be attractive from the outside and have people wanting to move here, the Memphis, Henryville, Sellersburg, Borden areas and if they do, that’s fantastic,” Schenck said.

Schenck pointed out that neighboring school systems are working just as hard to attract out-of-district transfer students from other school systems, including West Clark.

“How can we position this district to maintain academic excellence, with its staff? ... How can you maintain all of those things while those around you are improving their facilities, those around you are looking at ways of attracting out of district students? While those out-of-district students they are attracting are our in-district students.

OPTIONS NEAR AND FAR

With the option of improving facilities in a major way off the table for now, there’s a score of alternatives that the board could consider, according to Schenck.

One would be bringing teacher-student ratios across the district closer to the board mandated number of 25-1. Teachers would not be fired, Schenck said, but rather when they retire or leave for other reasons, they may not be replaced. Other options, like modular classrooms, are also possible.

“...If you have less money coming in, you don’t continue to spend at the levels you have been,” he said. “You do look at how to curb some of that spending to keep your cash balance healthy while not sacrificing academic programs.”

Other district options that have been discussed before and throughout the process are consolidation and disbandment. Combined enrollment for the high schools for the 2016-17 school year in the West Clark corporation totaled just over 1,500; student enrollment at Greater Clark County Schools’ three high schools was more than 3,000 and New Albany-Floyd County totaled more than 3,500 high-schoolers at its two buildings for the 2016-17 school year.

“We don’t have their student enrollment,” Schenck said. “You could argue they have student enrollment to support multiple high schools. Right now, we don’t have the student enrollment. Could we, in the future? I would hope so. I would hope that we’d continue to grow.” The board unanimously passed a resolution at a Sept. 14 board meeting reaffirming its commitment to three pre-K through grade 12 campuses.

However, during that meeting, district attorney Mike Gillenwater advised that “if the board changes, the board can change the direction of the corporation.”

“I think the district will look very, very hard at two options that you have heard mentioned,” Schenck said. “If we start talking about what-ifs and major shifts in direction – I’ve already been told by the board to look at processes, procedures, guidelines, deadlines to be met, things that need to be filed for two major things: consolidation and disbandment, dissolvement, divorce, whatever you want to call it.”

Board member Brian Guernsey, the only member who voted against putting the referendum on the ballot, said he is “100 percent against” consolidation and would support disbandment before he supported bringing another referendum to the voters.

Splitting the district into two separate entities is something the board discussed as far back as October 2016, according to News and Tribune archives.

“I think as a board, we need to look at all of those,” board secretary Doug Coffman said. “I have a preference. I’m sure all the board members have a preference. ... Doing nothing is not an option. Something is going to have to happen.”

IMMEDIATE NEEDS

“Things cannot wait. There are immediate needs that the board can say, hopefully with a unanimous approval, that we need to do right away,” Schenck said.

At the top of the list: security concerns at each campus. Each community identified secure entrances as the most-important upgrade needed at their

campus during the process. Next up would be upgrades to air quality, HVAC, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. Third-most important on Schenck’s list would be getting modular classrooms at Silver Creek, to alleviate overcrowding and get every teacher into a classroom.

“That would be a board decision, but something we’ve talked about as far as what happens if. All that requires dollars, some substantial, some not substantial. Talking candidly about what’s top on the list,” he said.

The board is currently able to issue $2 million in general obligation bonds per building with just a majority vote. In 2018, due to changes in legislation, that number increases to $5 million. Prior calculations from the board’s bond council showed that issuing just four bonds at a time, totaling $20 million, would have a tax impact of $.33 cents per $100 of net assessed value. Those tax increases would be within property caps, if the board goes that route.

The board meets at 6 p.m. this Thursday, Nov. 9, at Borden High School.

While the board is scheduled to discuss the outcome, Schenck said no major decisions can be expected at that time.

“There are decisions that need to be made,” he said. “I don’t know that we will make those as early as Thursday night. We need to process where the votes came from. We need to go over the last several weeks of opposition and some of the suggestions that they made.”

The option of another referendum is still possible; the board could bring something in front of taxpayers as early as November 2018 if they get enough support. If they go that route, Schenck hopes to bring in those “pillars” of the opposition and bring them to the table to try to find a plan that works for everyone.

Related Stories:
• Opposition to $95 million West Clark schools referendum won't send political email
• Clark County auditor, West Clark superintendent hash out referendum tax impact
• Hammond schools looks to voters to borrow $110 million for new construction
• Hammond voters to decide on new high school, budget referendums Tuesday
• Nearly 70 percent vote against $95 million referendum for West Clark schools
• Hammond voters appear to favor $110.6 million school capital improvement plans
• Voters lean toward accepting Hobart schools referendum questions
• West Clark School Board votes to have Silver Creek secede after referendum failure
• What's ahead after West Clark schools elects to divorce Silver Creek from the district?

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