Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Residents speak out against proposed school referendum

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By KEVIN NEVERS

Five members of the public pushed back on Thursday afternoon at the second of four information sessions being held by the Duneland School Corporation to answer questions about the property-tax referendum on the ballot of the municipal primary election on Tuesday, May 7.

Concerns expressed included the impact of the referendum on seniors with fixed incomes and on parents already paying hefty fees associated with athletics and extracurriculars; the accountability of the current referendum revenues; the transparency of the Duneland School Board; and the timing of the referendum itself.

Interim Superintendent Judy Malasto opened the session with an overview of the Duneland School Corporation, its numerous achievements and accolades, its multiple partnerships with not-for-profits and community organizations, its high academic quality, and the long list of state and national championships won by its athletic and extracurricular teams.

Chief Financial Officer Lynn Kwilasz then spoke about the efforts made by the corporation to use tax dollars wisely: through the use, for example, of cooperative and qualified purchasing; the refinancing and retirement of pension debt; and the upgrading of lighting and building control systems for efficiency’s sake.

Kwilasz next discussed the history of state educational funding, how--specifically--until 2008 there existed a “quasi-balance” between state tuition support and property-tax revenues, at which time the state became the sole funder of school general funds to the exclusion of property taxes, which in turn were dedicated to maintenance, transportation, equipment, furniture, utilities, and the like.

A shortfall was thus created, which the property-tax referendum of 2012 succeeded mostly in closing, at an additional rate of 22 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. That additional rate expires at the end of this year. As Kwilasz emphasized, the proposed referendum on the May 7 ballot would not establish a new tax rate but would simply continue the present rate for another seven years.

The owner of a home with a median value in Duneland--$183,600--would pay the same additional $15.97 per month, and the same $191.60 per year, which he or she has been paying, Kwilasz said. “So if the assessed valuation of your home hasn’t changed then your impact will be unchanged.”

Seniors

Except, suggested one woman in the audience--who declined to identify herself--AVs are not staying the same. They’re rising. “My elderly neighbors’ assessments are skyrocketing,” the woman said, then added that she’s personally acquainted with seniors who have spent $1,500 in appraiser’s fees just to appeal their assessment.

“I know this doesn’t look like much,” the woman said, “but they can’t afford to pay for emission testing for new license plates. They’re going without cars, basic cable, because their property taxes are killing them. I mean, I’m a bleeding heart but I’m concerned. Children are great but seniors on fixed incomes live in the community too.”

“Your concern certainly isn’t lost on us,” Malasto said.

“These are the weakest people in our community,” the woman continued.

Good schools are a main draw to this community, Malasto replied. If schools deteriorate because of budget shortfalls, “then everything falls apart. We understand, we’re asking for a sacrifice.”

“It looks like you’re saying we should just tighten our belts,” the woman responded. “I think that’s disingenuous.”

Speaking on behalf of seniors in Duneland was Mike Delliquardi. “I’m one of the seniors you’re talking about,” he told the woman. “There are problems with assessments. But this isn’t about solving those problems. This is about asking what the value of the referendum is. The biggest value is that our kids get educated well. Communities with excellent public schools have less crime and vandalism, better jobs, better healthcare options.”

“I don’t care if you have a kid in the school system or not,” Delliquardi added. “This tax increase to me is a good value.”

Accountability

Beth Mehling wanted to know exactly how referendum funds “are actually allocated.”

“Is it just a big pot of money?” Mehling asked. “Is there a system for spending it?”

Malasto indicated that the corporation is “examining ways to analyze efficiencies, outcomes, and resources,” so that referendum revenues can best be directed to where they’re needed most.

“So will there be a method of applying referendum funds going forward?” Mehling pressed.

“Like a committee from the public?” a man from the audience chimed in.

“Those are details I would like to start providing,” Malasto acknowledged. “We talk about this at school board meetings but you can’t put four pages of how referendum money is being spent in the newspaper. We need to do a better job of explaining things.”

Trust

For John Doyle the basic issue appears to be one of trust in the administration and the Duneland School Board. His opening shot, pointing to Assistant Superintendent Monte Moffett, whose contract was not renewed: “And you fire this man? Monte gets fired for being a great guy. I’ve got some legitimate questions and no one wants to answer them.”

“Why,” Doyle wanted to know, “are students leaving the district for the charter school? Why are they leaving the schools? Is there a trust problem with the School Board. I don’t know. Why don’t you guys work with the public? What are you spending our money on?”

Bobbi Hall, co-president of the Duneland Teachers Association, fielded this one. “It’s going to affect children, classrooms, teachers,” she said. “I pay the tax too, because I believe in the system. I believe in this community. I’ve lived in communities that don’t support their schools and you don’t want to live in them.”

Fees on Top of Fees

Chris Richardson, the parent of a Duneland student, noted first that to his way of thinking “it’s a little disconcerting” that only a few parents were in attendance at Thursday’s information session. He also expressed the wish that “there were an easier way to comment” on the referendum, “because you feel attacked when you comment.”

Nonetheless, while delighted to say that the Duneland Schools are “a great system,” Richardson pointed to the fact that the parents of kids in extracurriculars and athletics are already paying fees through the nose. “I just spent $316 to buy three different warm-ups for my daughter,” he said.

“My daughter doesn’t need three warm-ups.”

All things being equal, Richardson said, he “would easily give that money for the referendum.” But all things aren’t equal. “Where do you have your gee-whiz moment?”

“We need to an analysis of where those extras are,” Malasto allowed.

Referendum Timing

Don Payne, for his part, wanted to know why the referendum has been put on the May 7 ballot. “Why hold it on the primary?” he asked. “There’s a lot fewer voters.”

Steve Disney, a parent of Duneland students and superintendent of the River Forest School Corporation, took a shot at answering Payne. Scheduling the referendum for the primary election would allow the Duneland School Board to begin its budgeting in the summer for the calendar year 2020, he said. “It’s the most efficient way to do it.”

Payne wasn’t buying that. The Duneland School Board could have put the referendum on the general election ballot--when many more voters will show up for the polls--and in the meantime estimate the likely revenues of a renewed 22-cent additional tax rate.

“The reason I think it’s in the primary is because it’s to your advantage,” Payne said. “Public records for the primary show who voted and you can target those people.”

Malasto insisted that the rationale for holding the referendum in the primary is legitimate. “It’s not a shady reason,” she said.

Next Sessions

The last two information sessions will be held as follows:

--2 p.m. Wednesday, April 3, Baugher Center, 100 W. Indiana Ave. in Chesterton.

--7 p.m. Tuesday, April 23, Liberty Intermediate Media Center.

 

 

Posted 3/22/2019

 

 
 
 
 

 

 

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