School tax hike debate kicks off

As the May primary election nears, supporters of Brown County Schools’ referendum are organizing.

A political action committee has launched a website, taxpayers Voter registration drives are underway. Signs will be placed in yards and business windows. Volunteers will knock on doors and call voters, and the superintendent is planning a speaking circuit.

Opposing voices have begun to speak up, too.

On May 3, Brown County voters will be asked to add 8 cents per $100 of assessed value to the property tax rate.

The new money to be raised would total about $1 million a year for seven years.

The bulk — about $875,000 — would go toward maintaining current class sizes, supporting current and new school programs, recruiting and retaining teachers, supporting teacher salaries and paying general bills.

One cent of the 8-cent tax — about $125,000 per year — would go to the Brown County Career Resource Center. The adult education center has received property tax money from a referendum since 2011, at the 1-cent rate. If it passes, this referendum would replace the current one.

Two red-and-white “Say no to … 8¢ Tax Hike for Brown Co. Schools” signs appeared last month in Gnaw Bone.

Paul Hardin printed them and plans to distribute more throughout the county.

He said his main reason for opposing the referendum is because he was recently let go as a school bus driver. But he has concerns about the tax impact, too, he said.

Hardin is a former Washington Township trustee.

“I have actually helped people pay their taxes because taxes were too high for them in the Brown County,” he said.

“I think it’s a shame they’re trying to use the Brown County people to support their habits. They’ve got bad habits of blowing money,” Hardin said, citing the construction of the intermediate school gymnasium and transportation building within the past two-and-a-half years.

In a guest column in this week’s paper, Nashville resident J.D. Ray said his opposition is not about denying children a good education. The cost is the problem, for him and for other retirees, he said.

Healthcare costs are increasing and property taxes seem to “creep” constantly, while Social Security benefits are static, he said.

Superintendent David Shaffer understands the concern about taxes, but he believes the district was forced into this corner because of decisions at the state level that have eroded financial support for public schools.

“In some ways, I hate to ask for additional taxes, but I think you could make a case, also, that the most important factor impacting the value of property is the quality of the schools in the area,” he said.

The political action committee’s website includes a calculator that can be used to estimate tax increases if the referendum passes.

Spending questions

Ray questioned why Brown County Schools cannot survive on a $30 million budget. The school district will receive 48.32 percent of property taxes levied in Brown County in 2016.By his calculation, the cost per student in 2015 in Brown County was $14,319 — higher than the state average and higher than similar-sized districts around the state.Shaffer and Assistant Superintendent Dennis Goldberg said rather than dividing the sum of all school funds by the number of students, a better figure to look at would be the amount the state gives districts per student: About $5,500.

“That’s really the direct expense of educating students,” Shaffer said.

The pool of state money is shrinking because of declining enrollment; since the Sept. 18 count, the district has lost 34 more students, down to 1,939.

District leaders often are asked about upgrades and additions that have been done at the school buildings, like Hardin mentioned.

That money comes from bonds the school corporation takes out, and it cannot be moved to another purpose, such as paying teacher salaries.

Bonds are paid through property taxes, through the debt service fund. As bonds are paid off, district leaders can choose to reduce the amount of property taxes they ask for.

Instead of lowering the tax rate, Goldberg said over the past few years, they’ve kept it consistent. When a bond is paid off, it is replaced with a new one, and that money is put back into building improvements.

“If we get another bond, it keeps the tax rate even all the way across. In other words, you don’t get this spiking up and down,” he said.

Shaffer said what the district has done to buildings using bonds is an effort to keep them up-to-date, so taxpayers won’t be asked to build a new school.

“I think that’s the more conservative and more taxpayer-friendly approach,” he said.

The future

If the referendum does not pass, enrollment continues to decline and no changes are made to the state’s education funding formula, Shaffer said the next superintendent could be faced with cutting programs and staffing.“I don’t particularly want that, and that’s one reason I am committing my last semester of my professional life here to see if we can get this accomplished,” said Shaffer, who is retiring.He said the purpose of the referendum is not to increase administrators’ pay.

“I certainly wouldn’t try to go to the taxpayers and say, ‘Hey, we need more money for our administrators.’ We compensate our administrators pretty well,” Shaffer said.

If voters approve the referendum, that might allow the district to create a salary model so that teachers could see what they will earn if they stay with Brown County Schools for several years, he said.

It’s a matter of competition, Shaffer said. Bartholomew County voters passed a referendum a few years ago, and Monroe County voters will be asked to do the same this year.

“We’ve lost a few teachers in recent years to other districts where they could go and get higher salaries. There are a lot of those folks we don’t want to lose — including a couple we have lost,” Shaffer said.

Ray is one taxpayer who will be voting “no” in May.

“For us, it’s a matter of financial survival,” he wrote in his column.

How much more?

Assuming a $45,000 homestead deduction and a $19,250 supplemental homestead deduction, this is how much more in property taxes Brown County residents could pay if Brown County Schools’ referendum passes in May, based on a variety of assessed valuations:

$100,000 assessed value: Additional $29 per year

$150,000 assessed value: Additional $55 per year

$200,000 assessed value: Additional $81 per year

SOURCE: Indiana Gateway for Government Units