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9 of 10 school tax hikes pass; voter mood shifts

– Indiana residents who’ve turned a cold shoulder to school districts’ requests for more money in recent years warmed up in Tuesday’s primary, approving a record rate of local tax increases to help fund school needs.

Nine out of 10 proposals to support schools by raising taxes won voter approval Tuesday. Only about half of such proposals have passed since 2008.

Education leaders say the high passage rate likely means schools are getting better at communicating their needs to voters.

“School districts want to continue having high-quality teachers and programming,” said J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents. “That’s something the community wants and demands, but the only way they’re going to be able to do that is by asking the community to fund through referendums.”

The additional money comes as schools scramble to make up for shortfalls since lawmakers capped property taxes and changed how school funding is handled in 2008.

The caps, which went into effect in 2009, limited property taxes to 1 percent on homes, 2 percent on farms and 3 percent on businesses. The state also took over the general fund spending and set new guidelines about how districts could spend property tax money.

Many districts have cut staff and programs, implemented fees for student athletes and considered ending school bus service.

Mount Vernon Community School Corp. Superintendent Bill Riggs said his Hancock County district had cut 17 percent of its staff, switched to a pay-to-play athletics program, reduced paper and supply use and slashed air conditioning and heating use in the summer and winter.

Referendums had failed twice before in the Mount Vernon district.

“We’re pretty much down to the bare minimum now,” Riggs said. “The alternative would have been additional staff cuts.”

Riggs said the money voters approved Tuesday will be used to pay off a deficit and bring back elementary art and music teachers who were reduced to part-time work. Several schools have asked for more money to continue bus services for children.

Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, said the passage of the Mount Vernon measure and others “shows that the system is working.”

“School corporations are getting better or more effective at communicating with local taxpayers with their needs,” he said.

But districts aren’t breathing easier just yet. The Mount Vernon proposal passed by a mere nine votes. Three others Tuesday passed by less than 3 percent.

“The sad fact is the money is not going to the direct education of our youth,” said Dietrich Wodarz, a retired Cumberland resident who voted against increasing taxes for Mount Vernon. “The money is being squandered on over-the-top brick and mortar and frills.”

Larry Longman – co-founder of an organization aimed at passing the Mount Vernon’s referendum – voted against the proposed tax increase when it first came before him in 2010 because he didn’t believe there was a need.

Longman, who voted for the referendum this time around, said he’s worried the district will need more money down the road, and he said lawmakers need to step up to help schools.

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