Column: Looming towards a referendum

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Commentary by Larry Lannan

With the Hamilton Southeastern School Board apparently moving toward asking local voters to approve an operating fund referendum in May of 2016, it is useful to look back on how we got to this point.

In November of 2009, local voters were told by the school board an additional property tax rate of 10 cents per $100 of assessed valuation would allow HSE Schools to lower class size and otherwise enhance the academic experience. Voters approved the increase in the general fund, effective January 1, 2010.

Later that same month Governor Mitch Daniels slashed funding for the state’s schools, blaming the severe economic downturn. As a result, the referendum tax increase was used just to keep HSE Schools’ financial head above water instead of lowering class sizes.

Other school systems, such as Carmel, ran their general fund referendums after Daniels had drastically cut spending, allowing them the insight to ask for more from taxpayers in their general fund referendum requests.

In recent years, the HSE School Board has gone to great lengths in avoiding large teacher layoffs. Teachers and other staff members have had their health insurance deductibles rise dramatically, requiring them to spend more money out-of-pocket for their health care needs. Fees have been instituted for athletics and other extracurricular activities. Land owned by HSE Schools was sold.

The 2015 Indiana General Assembly did provide more funding for HSE Schools, but the $24 million trumpeted by lawmakers at the time was optimistic. HSE will get between $7 million and $8 million extra state funding in each of the next two years, below the initial $24 million estimate.

Once lawmakers finished their work, HSE authorized a scientific local survey showing support for a referendum tax increase if the extra funds go toward teacher salaries and/or class size.

The school board will be eyeing a May 3 referendum. Look for a lively debate to ensue between now and then.

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