Referendum bid crushed

    Voters in the North Adams school district on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a general fund referendum which would have generated $1.25 million in additional property tax revenues annually for seven years.
    Ballot results showed 86 percent of district residents who went to the polls on Tuesday were not in favor of a tax increase. The final tally was 2,144-345 against the referendum.
    The school vote was the lone issue to be decided by voters in Adams County during this year's primary election balloting, and voter turnout was predictably light. Only one-fourth of eligible voters throughout the school district — 26 percent — cast votes on Tuesday.
    Voting was heaviest in the rural areas of the district, with voter turnouts of 34 percent in both Union and Preble townships. Decatur city residents were less enthusiastic about voting, with only 19 percent of registered voters in the Decatur 3 precinct and 21 percent in Decatur 2 heading to the polls.
    The North Adams school board in January voted to place a measure on the primary election ballot that would have imposed a property tax rate not to exceed 20.45 cents on each $100 of assessed valuation.
    School officials have maintained the additional general fund revenue, which is used primarily for employee wages and benefits, was necessary to maintain quality educational opportunities in light of declining revenues provided by the state. Superintendent Wylie Sirk had said the referendum was needed to avoid increased class sizes and to forego additional staffing cuts throughout the school district.
    To accommodate the shrinking annual budget, the superintendent said in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's election, the school district since 2007 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, he said.
    In the wake of Tuesday's resounding referendum defeat, Sirk said he was a little surprised at the magnitude of the vote differential. "But that's exactly what we wanted to know from the North Adams Community. They have spoken, and now we need to make some decisions that are in the best interest of our kids."
    While Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels announced recently that some surplus budget revenues will be returned to state's secondary schools, Sirk said it has not yet been determined how those revenues will be divided. "But because of the shortfall we were already facing, that (extra money) won't even begin to catch us up."
    Sirk said pending staff retirements and "other changes" in the school system will likely allow the district to avoid laying off additional teachers for the 2011-2012 school year.
    "We have a cash balance and Rainy Day (fund) money to fall back on, so we should be able to get into the next school year with our current staffing levels," Sirk said. "It's the 2012 budget — which runs from January to December — that has got us very concerned. We may have to make other cuts as we proceed" through the 2012 year. "But we will continue to move forward," the superintendent said.
    "The farm community spoke tonight," school board president Michelle Stimpson said following the vote count. The referendum went down to its most lopsided defeat in the rural portions of the district. In Preble Township, 93 percent of voters rejected the proposal. In West Root, that number was 91.5 percent.
    Stimpson had cast the lone board vote against placing the referendum on the ballot. At the time she had cited specific concerns about residents on fixed incomes and the impact of the referendum on farmers in the school district.
    "But I'd like to thank the people that did come out to vote. They were given the opportunity to speak, and they did so." Stimpson said the board will now take the information given it by voters to shape the future of the school district.
    "I have some things I'd like to talk to Wylie about, and some of the other board members have ideas, too," Stimpson said. "We need to look at what we can do with what we have. But I certainly don't want to cut teachers. We need educators to educate.
    "And do I want to cut programs? Absolutely not," said Stimpson.
    The school district paid approximately $6,000 to place the referendum on Tuesday's ballot.