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The crowd was small and the dialog was sparse Monday evening as North Adams school officials held the first of three public meetings to discuss a property tax referendum that will be decided by school district voters on May 3.
The 10 area residents in attendance at the meeting, held at the former Monmouth Elementary school building, barely outnumbered the school personnel on hand for the evening. North Adams Superintendent of Schools Wylie Sirk and the five board of education members laid out reasons the referendum is being sought to bolster the school district's general fund.
The referendum, if approved by voters, would generate approximately $1.25 million annually for the next seven years. Sirk said the funds are needed to allow North Adams schools to maintain quality educational opportunities in light of declining revenues provided by the state.
Sirk said the school district has closed a building (the one in which Monday's meeting was held), reduced staff by some 40 employees and made other cutbacks to accommodate those declines.
"We are solvent at this point, but we also anticipate another $1 million shortfall" in state funding, Sirk told the crowd. "And it's beginning to hit our foundation."
Because the overwhelming majority of general fund monies are used for staff salaries, Sirk said the referendum is needed to avoid increased class sizes and further personnel cuts. The superintendent did not address which specific areas would be cut if the referendum is rejected by voters, but did mention that music, arts and physical education programming could be in jeopardy.
"We've cut more than $2 million from our budget, and we finally said 'enough,'" said school board member Tim Ehlerding. "We do not want class sizes to increase, so this (referendum) is what we're proposing."
"We are trying to be proactive rather than reactive," said board president Michelle Stimpson. "Do we want to impose an additional tax? We certainly do not. But what other options are out there for us?"
Sirk urged those in attendance to go to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance website (www.in.gov/dlgf/4932.htm) and use the tax calculator there to determine the exact amount of tax increase the referendum would generate on their properties. He said a homestead with an assessed valuation of $150,000 would pay an additional $134 year in property tax if the referendum is approved. A similarly valued agricultural property would see an annual tax increase of $301.
Sirk said he had heard from one area farmer who, after learning the exact amount of additional taxes to be paid on his property, said it was a figure he could live with.
But an area dairy farmer on Monday evening described himself as "on the other side of that coin."
"In my case, I'm looking as $1,200 to $1,300 a year in additional taxes, and I feel it's a little unfair to single out farmers and small businessmen," the man said.
Another audience member inquired about a report this week that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has earmarked an additional $150 million for Indiana schools. Sirk agreed that it now appears schools will receive more state funding than originally believed; he noted that such funds are "not always divided equally" by the state.
At the close of Monday's 30-minute meeting, Sirk thanked those in attendance for coming and asked them to share what they had heard with friends and family members.
Similar meetings are planned for the next two Monday evenings: April 25 at the Union Township Hall and May 2 at Preble Firemen Park.