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home : most recent : statewide implications January 18, 2019


1/11/2019 12:41:00 PM
Markle lawmaker wants to create an option for a school safety tax hike

Meredith Colias-Pete, Post-Tribune

A new proposal in the Indiana legislature would set up a new school safety referendum giving schools the option to ask local taxpayers to help foot the bill for security costs.

The idea would be to establish a third category for school property tax referendums.

The proposed bill would allow schools to levy up to $.05 per $100 valuation for up to 10 years, rather than 7 or 8 years in existing referendums. A state agency estimates it could raise up to $150 million statewide, based on 2018 assessed property values.

Lake County levy estimates range from nearly $80,000 for River Forest to about $2 million for Lake Central.

Porter County levy estimates range from $120,000 for Boone Township to $1.1 million for Valparaiso Community Schools and $1.3 million for Duneland.

If a school district would pass such a referendum, the money would be used to pay for expenses many have now as they beef up security

Those include: partial school resource officer salaries, a school safety office, threat assessments, creating a safety plan, emergency response systems, equipment, building upgrades; programs for mental illnesses, addiction, anger management, bullying or school violence; school safety professional development, and paying off debt incurred for safety improvements.

However, a school district would also forfeit an annual state safety grant; many local schools received about $50,000 last year from the fund. Across Indiana, schools got about $14 million last year under the program.

A potential third option

“Schools are looking at some pretty hefty expenses” with securing buildings and adding school cops, said Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, the bill’s sponsor.

Currently, Indiana school districts can put two types of property tax hikes on the ballot — one to raise money for the budget known as an operating referendum, and a second for construction and/or building fixes, known as a capital referendum.

Holdman said limiting a third referendum for only school safety might be a stronger selling point they can make to local taxpayers to get additional money. The referendum would be optional, he said.

“The state of Indiana does not have any more money for school safety than we have already appropriated,” Holdman said. It is “a way for us to respond to the needs of what local (schools) have.”

Under Republican leadership, Indiana has amassed a $1.8 billion reserve fund, but GOP leaders say significantly drawing that down would be fiscally irresponsible and isn't an option they would consider for education costs.

The bill would be held for a few weeks for tinkering before it goes to a first hearing in committee, he said.

Holdman’s proposal was drawn up after consulting with groups including the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, Indiana State Police, Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office, superintendent and school board associations, he said.

Local leaders skeptical

Local Northwest Indiana schools leaders, however; were skeptical of the plan.

As one of Northwest Indiana’s more affluent school districts, Munster had been able to make the case to voters for a tax hike three times since 2013.

Two successful referendums were passed in 2017 - for budget expenses and repairs - a few years after it was rocked by a financial scandal where two former administrators were accused of getting overpaid $840,000 mostly through their retirement annuities.

The district was also dealing with a $8 million deficit which it has since closed last year, officials said.

For a potential new type of referendum, the details on how the money could be spent matter, Munster Superintendent Jeff Hendrix said via email.

“Can they be used to create a school police force, put up traffic gates or barriers, purchase airport type scanners, cameras, etc.,” he said. “Can we hire more counselors, mental health therapists and social workers to provide supports to children in our schools. Furthermore, after running two referendums locally, there is a cost to running a referendum campaign to educate the public on what the school district would do with those referendum monies and how those monies would make schools safer.”

“Why doesn’t our state government go ahead and budget and appropriate new monies to support school safety measures and programs for all school in Indiana? That would be more effective and efficient,” he said.

Officials: Proposal likely would benefit richer districts

If it has to go to a public vote, Merrillville Superintendent Nick Brown said the proposal would mean richer school districts - whose taxpayers would more readily agree to raise property taxes - would have the advantage.

“A (well-off) school district like Carmel has a better chance of passing,” he said. “It sets ups an ability for some districts to add safety (funding) and others not.”

“I think setting up in this way is probably something I wouldn’t prefer,” Brown said.

A better proposal to offset a lot of these costs would be a more equal system of funding from the state based on student population, he said.

Lake Ridge Business Manager Laura Hubinger agreed with Brown’s assessment.

In November, Calumet Township voters rejected two school votes totaling $66 million for the budget and building repairs. Part of those plans included safety upgrades, she said.

“What was in our referendum on the construction side: (more secure) entrances, cameras, notification systems, all of that,” she said, “We already have a tool to get those kind of things.”

“To be specific, let’s just say you go and say, ‘Hey, I want to do all this stuff… in the name of security,’” she said. “What good is to do to do any of it when you (also) need a roof?”

“Safety was on the top of our list in doing the entrances,” she said. “It just didn’t pass.”

After the two failed November referendums, Lake Ridge is now drawing up cuts.

“I will be cutting security, I will be cutting teachers,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed.

Copyright 2019, Chicago Tribune






Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR


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