MUNSTER | School Town of Munster Superintendent Richard Sopko is blunt about the significance of Tuesday's referendum.
“If this referendum doesn’t pass, the students in the 2013-14 school year, just next year, will not receive the same education as students who are here now,” Sopko said.
The referendum asks for an increase in property taxes of 19.9 cents per $100 assessed value. However, Sopko said, the 2013 Lake County property taxes in Munster have dropped more than 18 cents compared with 2012 taxes.
“That means we’re only asking to add 1.16 cents per $100 when compared with the 2012 amount,” Sopko said.
While it will still amount to 19.9 cents per $100 of assessed value, the 2014 property tax needs to be compared with 2012, he emphasized. The Munster property tax increase as a result of the referendum will not be as high as originally expected.
For a home with an assessed value of $100,000, the additional charge would be 32 cents per month, or $3.80 per year, above 2012 property taxes, according to a chart provided by Sopko. A home assessed at $300,000 would have an additional $1.57 per month, or $18.88, per year property tax increase when compared with 2012.
If passed by voters, the referendum would add $3 million a year for seven years to the district’s general fund. That would bring the funding levels close to what they were before Indiana switched state funding for schools to state sales taxes, from property taxes, Sopko said.
The general fund pays for salaries and benefits, and utility costs. The funds brought in by a successful referendum wouldn’t pay for the construction done at the high school, he said, noting the school town’s debt service is a different part of the budget.
The School Town of Munster has lost state funding since 2002, Sopko said, representing a drop of 29 percent of its budget. That translates to funding cuts of $2 million per year. The district also ranks fifth from the bottom in per-student funding, he said.
“Schools that perform poorly get more funding per student,” Sopko said. “Charter schools, parochial schools and virtual schools with no brick and mortar buildings get more funding than school systems like Munster and Lake Central. The charter schools and voucher programs are diluting the amount of money available.”
Munster currently receives $95,000 less per classroom than other schools in Northwest Indiana, he said.
The stakes in this general referendum election are high for homeowners and businesses as well as families, according to educators, school leaders and some residents.
“We’ve already cut $5.5 million from our budget,” said Carrie Wadas, a lifelong Munster resident and longtime School Board member.
“We need the money just to maintain what we have. My fear is that if the referendum doesn’t pass, the Munster schools will be unrecognizable in the near future. This is the most important issue in our town’s history,” Wadas said.
“The state funding cuts could single-handedly destroy our town without this referendum.”
John Friend, president of the Munster School Board, agreed.
Without additional funding, dozens of positions, including teachers, will need to be cut, he said. Those laid off will be the younger teachers, many of whom serve in such capacities as band director and faculty sponsors of extracurricular programs.
“The class sizes will increase to 40 or more students, and we will lose many of our programs like PE, art and music in the elementary schools. Orchestra is up for grabs. We would lose our speech and debate program, which has gained national recognition,” Friend said.
Athletics also would be affected, with the likely loss of the middle school feeder program and junior varsity, he said.
Bret Winternheimer, director of the award-winning Munster band, said he likely would be laid off because he’s only been with the school system for three years.
There’s also the problem of property values decreasing, Wadas said.
“A Northwestern University study shows that a home valued at $245,000 in a community with a strong public school system will quickly devalue by $40,000, as the schools begin to decline,” she said.