With voters having approved the most recent school referendum requests in the School City of Hobart and the School City of Hammond, other school districts say they may look at a referendum to shore up their operating budget or construct new buildings.

State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville, said schools across the state are having to seek referendums because they feel the state isn't providing them with sufficient resources to operate properly. He said state funds to schools, on average, have been kept the same despite inflation. He said schools just can't do what they need to do to teach children with fewer and fewer resources.

"It doesn't matter what type of community we're looking at, whether that be rural, urban or suburban, wealthy or poor. Schools in each of these communities are having to go to their community members to seek the extra funds they need," Melton said.

"It's a growing trend across all of Indiana and without a budget session coming until 2019, we'll be seeing more and more of this until we can try and fund schools more appropriately in the next budget cycle, unfortunately."

Of the 29 traditional public school corporations in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, the vast majority of them have successfully launched a referendum request.

Voters in the Valparaiso Community School Corp. approved two referendums in May 2015 — a $150 million construction referendum that has been used to build the new Heavilin Elementary School, south of U.S. 30 that opened this fall, major upgrades at Valparaiso High School and renovation to other school buildings.

Central Elementary School, the smallest elementary school within the district, is closed while undergoing major renovations, with those students attending classes at Hayes-Leonard Elementary while construction is under way at Central. Youngsters will be able to return to Central in the fall.

The operating referendum will add a total of $31 million to support teacher salaries, benefits and expand school programs.

Valparaiso superintendent E. Ric Frataccia has said the referendum has allowed the district to think outside the box, maintaining and adding new programs. For example, the district is offering Project Lead the Way classes to children in kindergarten through fifth grade.

The Lake Central School Corp. approved a $160 million construction referendum in 2011, and is now taking steps toward seeking an operating referendum. It has hired a consultant to determine if it has the community's support.

School leaders have said class sizes are growing and they've had a problem keeping good teachers, who have left to join other higher-paying school systems. The district also has higher utility bills and wants to be able to maintain its programs.

Lake Central schools Superintendent Larry Veracco said Friday, "We are still gathering our data but if we are to go in May, our board will have to make a resolution in January. We will know more in December."

Another local school district that may look at a referendum is Lake Ridge New Tech Schools.

"Unfortunately, because we don't get enough money from the state, we may have to consider it," Lake Ridge School Board President Glenn Johnson said.

Johnson said it's not something the board discusses regularly, but "every school district in the state has to consider it."

PROPERTY TAX CAP COMING 

In 2008, Hoosier lawmakers increased the state sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent to raise money for school corporations. Prior to that, school districts were supported by local property taxes.

For most districts in Northwest Indiana, the change resulted in less money each year. That same law also created a referendum process enabling a school district to ask voters for more money beyond what the state doles out. An operating or general fund referendum supports salary, benefits and programs; a capital projects or construction referendum raises money to build or renovate school buildings.

In addition to less money from the state, some school leaders in Northwest Indiana are worried about 2020, when they expect to lose money because of the property tax caps, a system the General Assembly put into place more than a decade ago that caps the amount of property taxes residents and businesses pay.

This can have a negative effect on a school district's capital projects, transportation and bus replacement funds, which still are supported by property taxes.

RISK OF BEING REJECTED

The Gary Community School Corp., which was taken over by the state because of its academic failure and financial debt, asked for a referendum in May 2015 and November 2016. Both were rejected.

Gary schools' emergency manager Peggy Hinckley said Friday there is no immediate plans for any referendum in Gary.

"We have to submit cost reduction plans to DUAB (Distressed Unit Appeals Board) later this school year. Until we get a better handle on cost reductions, we would not pursue a referendum," she said.

The Michigan City Area Schools sought a referendum in 2009 and 2013, and it also was rejected. MCAS spokeswoman Betsy Kohn said the school board has no plans to see another referendum at this time.

"We will continue to analyze our financial situation as more information becomes available regarding state and federal education funding," she said. "We want our students to have quality educational opportunities."

OTHERS DOING OK

Highland schools Superintendent Brian Smith said the district has had discussions about the process, but is doing well financially.

"We don't see a need for it," he said. "We're finishing up a total $30 million construction project and our enrollment has gone up over the last couple of years, about 72 students. We're now about 3,250 students."

He said he was happy to see the communities in Hammond and Hobart supported the school districts, but he thinks it's unfortunate that schools have to go to the voters for more money.

"Most communities may have as many as 75 percent of the population that may not have children in schools. In those situations, you have to really show people the value of having a good school system," Smith said. "Obviously, those school corporations were able to get the message through, and that's really good."

He said the Highland district was able to avoid asking for a construction referendum because the construction work underway at each school is less than $10 million per building.

Smith added the district has debt that will drop off in 2020 and 2021, which means the tax caps will have less of a sting in Highland.

Merrillville school board President Thomas Bainbridge said the district is in decent financial shape and doesn't need a referendum at this point.

"We've managed our budget pretty well," he said. "You always have to watch out for the utilities. It's a variable that's hard to predict, but so far we've monitored it very well. Our directors have been very conscious of what's coming down the road. It will be interesting when the tax caps come down, and we'll have to see exactly how they affect us."

Portage schools Superintendent Amanda Alaniz said the district is not considering a referendum, and it has not been a topic of conversation.

"We've been fortunate in having previous superintendents and finance directors who have kept us in a good position, which is why we're able to budget $8 million on the upgrades to Portage West," she said.

"We're in good financial shape and the district is proud that it hasn't had to seek a referendum. We are talking about the tax caps but we are not entertaining a referendum at this point."

Officials from the LaPorte Community School Corp. could not be reached for comment. However, there is a statement on its website that says, "Since the school corporation will retire substantial debt over the next few years, we are in a position to undertake a major building project without asking for an increase in revenue/property taxes."

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Education reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.