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Voters in the North Adams school district will be asked in May to approve a general fund referendum tax levy which, if successful, would generate $1.25 million annually for seven years to support the financially-struggling district.
The school district's board of eduction, meeting Tuesday evening for its regular monthly session, voted 4-1 to place a measure on the May primary election ballot that would impose a property tax rate not to exceed 20.45 cents on each $100 of assessed valuation — equivalent to an additional tax load of $204 annually on homes valued at $100,000.
Indiana Code allows school district to seek a referendum "provided that the board determines it cannot carry out its public education duty unless it imposes a referendum tax levy."
If the referendum is approved by voters in the May 3 primary, the school district would begin collecting that additional tax in 2012.
Superintendent Wylie Sirk said the additional revenue is necessary "to continue our high quality education, our current personnel and our current class size."
Over the past four years, Sirk said, the district has seen a steady and substantial reduction in revenues received from the state of Indiana. He said the projected reduction in state funding for calendar year 2012 exceeds $1.1 million.
To accommodate the shrinking annual budget, the superintendent said that since 2007 the district has eliminated nearly 40 administrative, teaching and support staff positions, closed one elementary school building, and has foregone pay raises for administrators. Those and other cuts have saved the district $2.2 million during that time.
But Sirk said the referendum is needed to avoid deeper cutbacks and additional staffing cuts. "We are deeply concerned about continuing in that direction," the superintendent said.
Board member Tim Ehlerding, who served on a committee charged with studying the ramifications of a general fund referendum, said the cuts in recent years — although painful — may have had a positive effect on the school district.
"It made us focus more closely on what we do here; on what our purpose is," he said.
But Ehlerding also said a lack of local control has hurt school districts across the state. "We are at the whim of the people in Indianapolis," he said. The board could regain some of that local control, he said, by asking voters of the school district voice their opinion through the ballot box about the future operation of North Adams schools.
"I think this (referendum) is something that should be seriously considered and ultimately approved," Ehlerding said to his fellow board members.
Board President Michelle Stimpson, who also served on the advisory committee, cast the lone vote against placing the referendum on the May ballot.
"I'm torn," Stimpson said. "With our economy the way it is; with people losing their homes and their jobs, how can we ask them to pay one more cent?"
She cited specific concerns about residents on fixed incomes and the impact of the referendum on farmers in the school district.
Board member Juan Gutierrez asked what steps the district would be forced to take should the referendum be defeated by voters.
"If we're going to ask (for additional tax revenue from the public), okay. But if we ask and don't get it, what would have to be cut? And if we don't do this, what are the repercussions?" Gutierrez asked.
No concrete answer was forthcoming.
But Gutierrez, along with board member Deb Bergman, said that while the future of the school district remains uncertain, the public should be allowed to offer its input.
"The voters will ultimately decide. We have a duty to allow the public to make that decision," Bergman said. "That doesn't mean we're asking for an open checkbook. We will still have to be frugal with our money and be good financial stewards of the district."
Gutierrez said, "I'm not sure this is what we want to do to the public, but to maintain the quality education now being offered, I feel we need to ask the public if they will help. If they say no, then we'll move forward."
The cost to the district to place the referendum on the May primary ballot was estimated at $6,000. The Adams County Council will be required to adopt a resolution certifying the request not less than 60 days prior to the primary election.