MUNSTER | Jubilation filled a room at Charleyhorse Restaurant on Calumet Avenue as the school referendum votes from the town’s 25 precincts were displayed on a big screen.
Voters overwhelmingly chose to support the property tax increase of 19.9 cents per $100 assessed value to raise $3 million a year for the school district’s general fund. The numbers from Tuesday’s referendum election were 3,564 “yes” votes and 1,891 “no” votes.
Every precinct reported a majority of “yes” votes with a nearly 2-1 margin. The final tally was 3,689 “yes” and 1,991 “no.”
Members of the Friends of Munster Schools political action committee, school personnel, parents and children and other supporters of the referendum filled the room to watch the numbers come in and celebrate.
“The real question will be, ‘Will you win by more than any other school district (having a referendum)?’ I predict the answer to that question is ‘absolutely yes,’” said Steve Klink, campaign manager for the Friends of Munster Schools. Klink also managed the Crown Point, Lake Central and Duneland referendum campaigns.
Munster School Superintendent Richard Sopko said the success of the referendum “is a victory for the kids.”
“It means we’ll be able to continue the programs we have and to provide a quality education for our students,” Sopko said. “It also means the community values education.”
The $3 million each year will go to the school district’s general fund over the next seven years. The general fund pays for salaries, benefits and utility bills. That additional money would bring the funding levels close to what they were before Indiana switched the state funding for schools from property taxes to the state’s sales tax, Sopko said.
The School Town of Munster has lost state funding since 2002, he said, representing a drop of 29 percent of its budget. That translates into $2 million per year in funding cuts. The district also ranks fifth from the bottom in per student funding, he said.
Munster currently receives $95,000 less per classroom than other schools in Northwest Indiana, he said.
Turnout Tuesday was slow.
"We'd have about 30 to 40 people vote since 6 a.m.,” said Amanda Kontor, inspector at Precinct 19 in Westminster Presbyterian Church, 6 1/2 hours into the referendum election. “They’ve been predicting about 100 voters per precinct.”
“Slow, but steady” and “light” were how the inspectors at Precincts 6 and 7 at Munster Town Hall described voting by mid-afternoon Tuesday.
“With other elections, people were lined up before we even opened the doors. Labor was first in line,” said Mary Robert, inspector for Precinct 7. “We didn’t see that this time. No one has had to wait to vote.”
The first voter arrived at 6:03 a.m. to vote in Precinct 6, said inspector Karen Kroczek, a precinct committeeman in Munster. The next voter arrived about 10 minutes later, she said.
“We’ve had a mix of voters,” Kroczek said. “We have one of the older demographics in town with a lot of people still living in the homes long after their children are grown and moved.”
With less than four hours left, Precincts 21 and 22 at Centennial Park Clubhouse had seen more voting. However, only 10 percent of the 1,115 registered voters in Precinct 22 had voted by that time.
Precinct 22 Inspector Tony Castaneda called the voting trends “weak, but expected. You’re either for or against it or apathetic or indifferent. It’s not a political decision. It’s strictly a family decision.”
Jeff and Vickie Brant were enthusiastically for the referendum.
“We have the most wonderful school system, and we want to keep it,” Vickie Brant said.
School Board member Carrie Wadas said the board already has cut $5.5 million from the school district’s budget.
Without additional funding, dozens of positions, including teachers, would need to be cut, said John Friend, School Board president.
“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, adding that athletics also would be affected.