School Finance

3 Marion County districts will ask voters for more tax money Tuesday

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Perry Township and Beech Grove Schools have school repairs as part of their plans if voters approve new money Tuesday.

Three Marion County school districts say they need extra money to pay teachers, fix school buildings and continue to ensure children can have a bus ride to school.

Wayne Township and Perry Township will ask voters to approve new tax increases on the ballot for Tuesday’s primary election.

For Beech Grove, one referendum would continue to raise money to support its busing system, which could be scaled back or even discontinued if it fails, and a second would pay for building repairs.

Superintendent Paul Kaiser said the building fixes must be made. The only question is how long they’ll take and how much they will cost. Ideally, the district would complete its construction this summer.

“If we don’t do it with the referendum, it will take us 10 years to replace it all,” he said. “The cost of equipment and materials will go up a lot over the 10 years. This is more efficient.”

Here’s a breakdown of each district’s ballot requests:

Beech Grove Schools

  • Proposed tax increases: Two referenda will be up for a vote: A 35-cent continuation of existing taxes and a 15-cent increase per $100 of a property’s assessed value.
  • What the increase will support: busing, updated band and choir rooms, heating and air conditioning systems.
  • Potential new cost to the average homeowner: Less than $36 per year for the 15-cent tax increase.

Perry Township

  • Proposed tax increases: Two referenda will be up for a vote: A 42-cent increase and a 13-cent increase per $100 of a property’s assessed value.
  • What the increase will support: hiring of bus drivers and janitors and building more classrooms for the growing student population.
  • Potential new cost to the average homeowner: About $118 per year if both pass.

Wayne Township

  • Proposed Tax increases: A 35-cent increase per $100 of a property’s assessed value.
  • What the increase will support: teacher and staff salaries.
  • Potential new cost to the average homeowner: Less than $100 per year.

Kaiser said his district needs the 15-cent tax increase to update heating and air conditioning in four of its five buildings, and the high school needs updated band and choir rooms for a program that has seen the number of participants more than triple.

Tom Little, superintendent in Perry Township, said his district is struggling to keep up with enrollment growth — the district is already using 26 portable classroom “trailers” as a temporary fix, and they’re bringing in 14 more for next year.

“Whenever you add kids and are growing like we are, you need more bus drivers to transport kids,” Little said. “And whenever you add more classrooms and more areas, you have to have custodians to clean them.”

Yet there are still shortfalls districts say they’ve been dealing with since the state decided to put in place caps on property taxes that limited what schools could collect.

In 2010, the Indiana legislature passed a bill to stabilize homeowners’ property taxes. Homeowners now can’t pay more than one percent of the total assessed value of their property in property taxes. If a home is assessed at 150,000, residents won’t pay more than $1,500 in taxes.

Those caps meant schools lost a primary source of money, so the state allowed school districts to go to local taxpayers to seek voter approval for extra money if they fell
 short.

Wayne Township lost 37 percent of its property tax revenue when the tax caps went in place, Superintendent Jeff Butts said at a meeting earlier this year. Only Beech Grove’s 39 percent loss was bigger in Marion County, he said. Wayne Township is the second largest district in the county behind Indianapolis Public Schools.

Supporters of the tax caps believe they offer much-needed relief to homeowners who have seen property values vary widely in the past. But critics argue they cut off a viable way for districts to pay for services for students.

Kaiser said he is confident his community will support the ballot proposals because even with the changes, taxes would still be lower than they were in 2007.

“Our community, they care about the living environment for kids with the heating and cooling, and they care about the performing arts,” Kaiser said. “We think they’ll support it.”

But he’s still got a back-up plan. If the referendum should not pass, Kaiser said, the district will have to cancel busing or reduce it significantly.

If Perry Township’s referenda don’t pass, Little said the district will continue using portable classrooms and would have to convert art and music space, the library and even gyms into classrooms for elementary school students. And Wayne Township would almost certainly see layoffs if the tax increases aren’t approved, officials said.

At this point, it’s up to voters, Little said, and he’s cautiously optimistic.

“We need to go to the community, and we need to express to the community the issues we’re having and the concerns we’ve got,” Little said. “This really places the entire future of the school corporation in the hands of the taxpayer, who foots the bill, and that’s more than fair.”

Payday coming soon

Pension paybacks for Detroit district employees may show up in March  

Thousands of Detroit district school employees may reap the benefits of a lawsuit over pension funding as soon as March.

School employees who worked for Detroit’s main district between 2010 and 2011 can expect refund checks in their mailboxes soon, district leaders say, but making sure the money ends up in the right place will be difficult.

The reimbursements are the outcome of a controversial move during Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration to withhold additional money from employees’ paychecks to pay for retiree health care benefits.

The Michigan Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the state Court of Appeals that the withdrawals were unconstitutional. As a result, the state is giving back $550 million to school employees with interest. The amount employees get depends on what they were paid at the time, either 1.5 or 3 percent of their salary.

While every district in the state is charged with handling the refunds, the Detroit district has a larger burden, tasked with processing 13,416 refunds totaling $28.9 million.

Some of the employees no longer work for the district and do not have an updated address on file, the district said, so employees have been asked to update their information by Feb. 28.

Another challenge: The district is trying to fill five positions in the financial department, the area charged with issuing the checks.

Jeremy Vidito, the district’s chief financial officer, said the state did not allocate extra dollars for additional support staff to help with the task, so the department is working overtime to process the checks.

“It’s prioritizing,” he said. “So there are items that we are going to push back to make sure this happens. It’s also … asking people to do more with less.”

Despite the challenges, the district said it plans to begin mailing checks starting the third week of March.

 

heated discussion

Aurora budget talks devolve into charter school spat

Aurora Public Schools board of directors and Superintendent Rico Munn, center.

Aurora isn’t facing major budget cuts, and school board members don’t have any significant disagreements with their superintendent’s budget priorities, but that didn’t stop a school board meeting this week from turning into a heated back and forth. At issue: the impact of charter schools, how new board members got elected, and what that says about what the community wants.

Four of the seven school board members were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate, sometimes speaking against charter schools. Many have been wondering what changes the new board will bring for the fifth largest district in the state, and Tuesday’s discussion shined a light on some rising tensions about different priorities.

The budget discussion was the last agenda item for the school board. District staff and Superintendent Rico Munn intended for the school board to provide guidance on whether their proposed budget priorities were the right ones.

Union-backed members who were sworn in in November pressed the superintendent and staff to talk about how charter schools would impact the district’s long-term finances.

“What I’ve always said is that charter schools have a negative impact on our financial model,” Munn said.

Veteran board member Dan Jorgensen asked Munn to clarify his statement.

“I don’t say necessarily it’s negative to the district, I say it’s negative to our financial model,” Munn said. “I just think that’s a fact.”

Then the conversation turned to the community. Board member Monica Colbert, one of the longer-serving board members, said the district is changing whether or not the board agrees because the community is demanding something different. The community “came out in droves” asking for the DSST charter school, she said.

Board President Marques Ivey, who was elected in November, disagreed.

“Not (to) this group that was voted in, I guess,” Ivey said. “I have to look at it in that way as well.”

Jorgensen supported Colbert’s argument.

“I think often times our perspective is also skewed by who we engage with, of course,” Jorgensen said. “But we need to be mindful we are here to represent our whole community.”

He added that a small fraction of Aurora’s registered voters voted in the school board election, saying, “there’s no mandate here at this table.”

When Ivey tried to dispute the numbers, Jorgensen continued.

“It’s not a debate,” he said. “That’s not the point. No one sits here based on — I mean there’s a lot of factors that contributed, like half a million dollars behind us or this or that.”

November’s election included large spending from the union and from pro-reform groups. The union slate of board members raised less money on their individual campaigns, but had the most outside help from union spending, totaling more than $225,000.

“I’m not going to let you get away with that shot,” Ivey said, stopping Jorgensen.

Then another board member stepped in to change the subject and ask for a word change on Munn’s list of budget priorities.

The district isn’t expecting to make significant budget cuts this coming school year, but in order to pay for some new directives the school board would like to see, district staff must find places to shrink the budget to make room.

The proposed priorities include being able to attract and retain staff, addressing inequalities, and funding work around social, emotional and behavioral needs. More specifically, one of the changes the district is studying is whether they can afford to create a centralized language office to make it easier for families and staff to access translation and interpretation help. It was a change several parents and community members showed up to the meeting to ask for.

Board members did not have major objections to the superintendent’s proposed priorities.

During the self-evaluation period at the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Cox said things aren’t as bad as they look.

“We’re building cohesion despite what may seem like heated discussions,” Cox said.

Things could be worse, he added – he’s heard of other groups getting in fist fights.

Correction: A quote in this story was changed to remove an expletive after Chalkbeat reviewed a higher quality audio recording of the meeting.