Two of the Region's top-performing school districts again will approach taxpayers, hat in hand, seeking funds they deem crucial to continuing quality teaching and programming.
School officials in both Crown Point and Lake Central public schools are asking voters to embrace the new norm: a school funding formula that, in part, requires periodic voter approval rather than automatic state funding.
In Crown Point, school officials seek an extension of a school funding referendum voters approved in 2011, hoping to continue with the same level of programming and teacher pay.
In Lake Central, where voters previously approved a $160 million referendum to update much of the high school and a new elementary school, voters now will be asked to approve an operating referendum similar to Crown Point's.
Officials in both school districts acknowledge accountability and transparency of past spending practices are key to making their case for the upcoming referendum vote.
A little more than a week before the May 8 primary vote, The Times looks at how money was spent in Crown Point from a May 2011 referendum and one in Lake Central in November 2011.
Crown Point Community School Corp. Superintendent Teresa Eineman is asking voters to renew the 2011 referendum, which is set to expire this year. The extension will provide funding to continue support for teachers, school nurses and hundreds of extracurricular activities.
"I'm not asking for any new taxes," Eineman said.
“This is a renewal of the 21 cents referendum passed by voters of the district in 2011 and currently funds more than 70 teachers, more than 500 extracurricular activities and nurses in all 10 schools. A win on the spring ballot will allow us to continue this funding of academic and educationally related programs benefiting students as we hold the line on class size during the rapid growth of single-family homes," she said.
The Lake Central School Corp. is seeking a $55 million operating referendum to support salaries, benefits, programs and day-to-day operations. That amounts to 17 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. It should raise a little less than $7 million a year for eight years.
School leaders say the average cost of a home in Schererville, St. John and Dyer is $212,600, meaning $180 more in taxes per year for homeowners.
Seven years ago, Lake Central school taxpayers approved a $160 million construction referendum allowing the school district to renovate about 60 percent of the high school and replace Protsman Elementary School.
Crown Point and Lake Central school officials said the money is in a specific account called the Referendum Levy Fund, and each district carefully tracks its spending.
Early this month, The Times asked both school districts to detail how past referendum dollars have been spent.
Crown Point Community School Corp.
In May 2011, the Crown Point Community School Corp. asked voters to pass an operating referendum of 21 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to raise about $5 million per year.
Eineman said 100 percent of referendum dollars were spent on salaries and benefits for more than 70 teachers, a school nurse in each of the 10 school buildings and extracurricular programs.
"Schools like Crown Point are among the lowest funded in the state in terms of the per-pupil cost but are among the highest performing," she said. "We perform so well that people don't know that we're among the lowest funded."
According to information provided to The Times in 2013, the school district spent approximately $1.5 million for salaries for elementary teachers and another $2.3 million on their benefits for items such as group dental insurance, the Teacher Retirement Fund and medical insurance.
The district spent $188,182 on teacher salaries at Taft Middle School from referendum money and $185,345 at Col. John Wheeler Middle School. Middle school benefits amounted to $730,433 in 2013. The salary and benefits for high school certified teachers were $957,692.
For that same year, the salary for school nurses was $318,310, while benefits amounted to $464,103.
In 2015, elementary salaries were nearly $1.7 million while benefits were $2.4 million. The district spent $214,572 toward teacher salaries at Taft and $192,549 at Wheeler from referendum dollars. The high school salary and benefits came to $959,908. For that same period, nurses salaries were $357,685 and benefits amounted to $516,340.
Lake Central School Corp.
In November 2011, voters in the Lake Central School Corp. approved a $160 million construction referendum allowing the district to build a new Protsman Elementary School and make numerous upgrades and expansions at Lake Central High School.
That's after the district asked for a $95 million referendum in 2009, which was rejected by voters.
Of the $160 million referendum, about $115 million was spent at the high school, $33 million on Protsman and the remainder — $12 million — was spent on the athletic fields, including a new football and track field, baseball and softball resurfacing and landscaping.
Contractors began work in June 2012 and divided the project into phases. The first was the high school academic wing, which stands three stories high and houses about 100 classrooms, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and locker rooms.
The school also has a 1,100-seat auditorium with an orchestra pit; a 12,000-square-foot media center; a 2,000-square-foot black box theater with sound room and stage lighting; a large competitive gym with seating available for 3,600 people, along with a second-floor practice gym; a wrestling room; and new administrative offices, including a conference room for administrators.
The pool was estimated to cost about $8 million and included mechanical work and new hallways, according to information from school district. The Aquatic Center also includes 800 seats for students and visitors, new locker rooms, and a hospitality/training/classroom area.
The school spent $6.1 million on structural steel and another $2 million on the site preparation. Grading at the high school site was $4.6 million, and site paving and landscaping amounted to $2.1 million. Fire protection was $1.2 million; plumbing, $4.8 million; HVAC/mechanical, $19.6 million; electrical $11.5 million; the building shell, $34.5 million; and there was an assortment of other costs.
Now completed, the upgraded high school has 875,000 square feet and houses 3,310 students.
Of the $33 million spent to build the new Protsman school, the bulk of the money — $11.5 million — was spent on construction of the exterior, which included excavation for the foundation, concrete footings and foundations, steel exterior masonry, exterior steel panels, the roof, exterior wall insulation, exterior doors and windows. Another $4.5 million was spent on the building's interior: steel wall framing, drywall, acoustical ceilings, sound insulation, interior glass and aluminum framing, interior doors and hardware, interior casework (such as cabinets, counters and trim), painting and flooring.
That project also includes $4.7 million on site utilities; $1.2 million on architectural; almost $1.4 million on construction management; and other expenses.
the new Protsman is 124,000 square feet and houses 657 children in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade.
Referendums a way of life in Hoosier state
Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick said the option for a referendum is critical to districts.
"Although very time-consuming, many districts have few options regarding meeting the fiscal demands associated with educating students. Believing in the work of our public schools, Indiana communities are passing school referendums at impressive rates. However, the passage is dependent upon many complexities aligned with individual communities,” she said.
Indiana School Boards Association Executive Director Terry Spradlin said there have been 164 referendums in the state over the past 10 years since the law was passed in 2008. He said 98 have passed for a 59.8 percent passage rate; 66 have failed, a 40.2 percent failure rate.
"They are becoming more frequent and more common," he said. "Districts are having to look at referendums for a reliable source of funding for new facilities, or for the general fund to maintain staff and expand programs and services."
The latest local school district to explore referendums is the Lake Ridge New Tech Schools in the Calumet Township/Gary area. Business manager Laura Hubinger said the district doesn't need it today but will need in the future.
"We have held off as long as we could," Hubinger said. "The property tax caps are going to have a direct impact on our property taxes and our tax collections. Our budget could see a loss of $3 million a year. We're being forced to consider it."