Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Schools On The Ballot: Hamilton Southeastern And Southern Wells

    Southern Wells Community Schools and Hamilton Southeastern School district are among ten Indiana districts with referenda on the May 2016 ballot. (401(K) 2012/Flickr)

    Southern Wells Community Schools and Hamilton Southeastern School district are among ten Indiana districts with referenda on the May 2016 ballot. (401(K) 2012/Flickr)

    All week we are taking a closer look at the ten school referenda that will appear on ballots around the state May 3. A referendum asks voters in a particular area to choose whether to increase their property taxes to fund schools. We will follow all ten referenda and post results as they come in the night of May 3. 

    School districts across Indiana will once again ask voters to pay higher taxes or risk larger class sizes and teacher layoffs.

    After property tax caps went into effect in 2008 and the legislature changed the state’s school funding formula, officials from districts of all sizes — urban, suburban and rural — say they have become reliant on referenda to sustain education in their districts.

    Hamilton Southeastern

    “Referendums have now become a reality, more so than they have in the past,” said Bev Redmond, a spokesperson for Hamilton Southeastern School District. Hamilton Southeastern is a central Indiana district that serves about 21,000 students. “Our reality came to a head in 2008 and 2009 when the governor made some cuts to education. “It made referenda more than just adding extras, this became part of our world.”

    Hamilton Southeastern School officials say their referendum, if passed, would provide the district with an annual $17 million. That’s a total of $119 million over seven years.

    The money would go into funding teacher salaries, reducing class sizes and incorporating new programs into district schools, said Redmond.

    Currently, the average Hamilton Southeastern Schools kindergarten class has 23 students. District officials say money would allow them to reduce kindergarten classes to 21 students. Sixth grade classes, which currently average 28 students, could also reduce to 26 students.

    The money from the referendum could also mean more entrepreneurship and language classes for students, according to Redmond.

    “We certainly want to be more competitive when it comes to talking about world languages,” Redmond said. “So, adding programming to make sure that we have students coming out of school that certainly can compete.”

    There’s a lot at stake for the district on this year’s primary ballot. The referendum builds upon a rate set by a 2009 referendum passed by the district.

    If this year’s referendum doesn’t go through, the district will lose that initial funding increase, as well. That would force the district to look into district-wide teacher cuts, Redmond said.

    “We would be losing approximately one hundred [teachers],” Redmond said. “It is dire. This is one of the most important decisions this community will make this spring.”

    And, she said, the referendum means more than simply funding schools.

    “Strong schools do equate to stronger property values,” Redmond said. “Schools really are the lifeblood of a community.”

    Southern Wells Schools

    For Southern Wells Schools, referenda have also become a lifeblood to sustain school funding. The small northeastern school district educates about 840 students. Their referendum aims to maintain the same tax rate that a 2009 referendum gave the school.

    Southern Wells Superintendent Jim Craig says the referenda would give the school district about $400,000 to keep class sizes small, give students more individual attention and start a preschool program.

    “Presently we have twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two kids in elementary classrooms and we would like to keep that the same,” Craig said. “If the referendum failed, we would be up to over 30 in classrooms because we’d have to cut staff.”

    Southern Wells Schools were hit hard with recent changes to the school funding formula. The district has become reliant on funds beyond state funding to maintain everyday operations.

    “Our budgets are so tight from the funding from the state and they fluctuate,” Craig said. “We’d like to have some consistency and be able to do the things that we feel like we need to do without cutting people and cutting staff.”

    Local reception to the referendum has been generally positive, according to Craig. A similar referendum easily passed in 2009 when large-scale teacher cuts loomed on the horizon.

    “When we had the initial referendum back in 2009 we actually did cut some teaching positions so there was that rallying point that everybody understood what we were doing,” Craig said. “So there was that experience that the community had of teachers actually losing their positions, getting ready to cut programs, so there was that fervor about it.”

    Now, the district hopes to get a renewal on the same tax rate — without an event that concretely showcases its need.

    “I think the main thing for us is that we need to get people out to vote,” Craig said.



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