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Special election Nov. 7 for Hammond and Hobart school referenda

An unattended voting machine awaiting early voters at the Lake County elections board eligible to cast a ballot in the Nov. 7 special election for Hammond and Hobart school referendums.

Superintendent Walter J. Watkins

School City of Hammond Superintendent Walter J. Watkins

HAMMOND — The largest school district in Northwest Indiana is turning to local voters next month to build a new high school, modernize other school buildings and maintain its current level of student instruction.

A special election Nov. 7 for the School City of Hammond will request the approval of this city's voters on two public questions: the authority to borrow $110.6 million for new construction, and $70 million for operational support.

Hammond schools Superintendent Walter J. Watkins is asking for the public's support. "Our locally elected school board of trustees has worked with all of us to do more with less despite a reduction of funding from state government, state-mandated tax caps, increased costs for healthcare and continued increases in energy and fuel costs," he said.

Assistant Superintendent Kristopher A. Rivera said the school district hasn't asked for referendum support from voters previously, but must now, because the state has reduced its revenue to city schools by $5.7 million in the past two years. The projected shortfall in state funds next year is $3.1 million.

The School City of Hammond currently spends a total of nearly $127.9 million annually on student instruction and other daily operating expenses.

Rivera said they are asking voters to raise city property taxes to generate a total of $70 million over the next seven years for salaries, benefits and other instructional costs to attract and retain quality teachers and maintain the current student transportation system.

He said if the operations referendum fails, the district can be expected to lay off teachers and their support staff, close schools, increase class sizes, curtail its early-college program, its performing arts academy and other programs. He said that may result in reduced property values.

The school district had about 14,000 students enrolled in the 2016-17 school year and employed about 1,000 Hammond residents. It provides 26,000 meals and 3,500 bus rides daily to children enrolled in city schools.

The School City of Hammond also is asking voters to authorize borrowing $110.6 million to build a new 400,000-square-foot middle/high school to replace Hammond High on the same site.

The construction referendum also would bring upgrades in technology, energy efficiency and security to other schools within the city.

Rivera said if the construction referendum fails, the city will be left with a 100-year-old Hammond High school building that no longer meets safety and security needs.

Rivera said the impact in Hammond would be an increase to the average homeowner of $86.90 a year in 2018 and 2019. 

Then the average tax bill will drop $75.46 in 2020 because of the state's circuit breaker system, which limits an individual property owner's tax liability.

The Lake County elections board reported a total of 167 people had cast early referendum ballots since Oct. 18 at all the county's polling places.

That includes 50 votes cast at the Hammond County Courthouse, 232 Russell St., Hammond; 111 votes at the Hobart Police Community Center, 705 E. Fourth St., Hobart; and six votes at the Lake County Government Center, 2293 N. Main St., Room A-205, Crown Point.

Election officials won't announce results for the referendums until after polls close at 6 p.m. Nov. 7.

The Crown Point School Corp. and Lake Central School Corp. won voter support for their school referendums in 2011, as did Hanover Community School Corp. in Cedar Lake and the River Forest Community School Corp. in Hobart Township in 2015. 

The Lake Station Community Schools and the School Town of Munster won referendums last May.

Voters rejected Gary Community School Corp. referendums in 2015 and 2016, and rejected the School City of East Chicago's referendum in May.


Lake County reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.