School officials: Climate not right for school construction referenda

Hoosier voters rejecting most projects put before them
2009-07-27T00:00:00Z School officials: Climate not right for school construction referendaCarmen McCollum -, (219) 662-5337

Hammond schools Superintendent Walter Watkins was stunned when the Lake Central School Corp. referendum failed at the polls.

"That was a real blow," he said. "We are rethinking our plans in light of the two referendum defeats that occurred in our area. We still feel there is a need for a new high school in Hammond, but we don't think the climate is right. We don't know what we're going to do right now. But the initiative is not dead."

Watkins has been eyeing a referendum for Hammond after Commissioner Tim Rushenberg, of the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance, last year supported the state School Property Tax Control Board's recommendation to deny a multimillion dollar proposal to build a new high school, saying the tax impact was too high.

Watkins has said the principal cost of a school construction project is $106 million. Of that amount, $75.5 million would pay for the cost of the high school. The remainder of that amount would be used to convert Gavit High School to a middle school.

Residents of Porter Township School Corp. voted down a $34 million request to expand Boone Grove High School on June 16.

The same day, Dyer, Schererville and St. John voters rejected a Lake Central School Corp. referendum to spend $95 million to renovate the district's lone high school.

Lake Central Superintendent Gerald Chabot said a referendum, which state lawmakers last year began requiring for large projects, takes an educational question and puts it into the political arena.

"It's unfortunate that we have to have this kind of decision-making model," he said. "It's unfortunate that referendums tend to divide communities rather than rallying them around an educational need. We need to learn from past experience and approach it in a different way."

As he looks ahead, Chabot said the district needs to develop a consensus. He has a multiple-step plan which includes hiring a company to analyze last month's vote, using the analysis to engage community groups in discussion about the district's future and creating a study group to look at different school configurations.

The crushing blow dealt to referendums in Lake and Porter counties is in line with what's happening across the state.

There have been 19 projects put to voters since the referendum requirement took effect in July 2008, said Mary Jane Michalak, spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.

The first referenda were on the ballot on last November. One of the 19 projects was a jail and one was for a general fund increase. The remainder were school construction projects.

Of the 17 school referenda, 11 failed and five passed. One was withdrawn.

The five that passed are:

-- $89 million for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp in Bartholomew County

-- $18.75 million for Flatrock-Hawcreek School Corp. in Bartholomew County

-- $149 million for Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. in Vanderburgh County

-- $278 million for Indianapolis Public Schools in Marion County

-- $60 million for Kankakee Valley School Corp. in Jasper County

Bill Orsburn, director of business for the Kankakee district, said Superintendent Glenn Krueger, along with a number of board members, put in countless hours of work to educate the public about the referendum.

"It came down to a couple of things: First that people believed we needed a new building because of our steady growth. And two, the taxes were not going to increase because of this project," Orsburn said.

"We had some people who challenged that. We have four existing obligations that will be expiring. As those expire, we're going to increase the payments on the new bond so that the total school tax rate will remain the same until 2015."

Watkins also has faced opposition to a new high school in Hammond. He said he intends to talk to his board about the best course of action for pursuing new high school. He, too, talks about consensus building among the school community.

"I don't know about a referendum right now. We're going to continue talking over the next few months about the needs of the school district, and we're going to do a much better job of educating the public," he said.

Meanwhile, the Hammond School Board approved a host of renovation projects during a public hearing Thursday.

The district intends to apply to the Indiana Department of Education for about $7 million of some $177 million of available Qualified School Construction Bonds, an interest-free financing mechanism supported through federal tax credits. The money would support additions to Morton High School, a new roof at Hammond High and upgrades to the Hammond Area Career Center.

Indiana voters have rejected 11 of the 16 school construction referenda put before them since state lawmakers added the referendum requirement for large projects in July 2008.

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