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Tax hikes for education put to vote

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Updated: May 22, 2013 6:16AM



Next month, three Northwest Indiana school districts will ask voters to increase property taxes to avoid cutting teachers, staff and extracurricular activities.

On May 7, voters will consider general referendum measures in the School Town of Munster, Union Township Schools and Metropolitan School District of Boone Township.

In Munster, the proposal would increase taxes by 19.9 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, which would raised $21 million over seven years. For a house valued at $244,835, with a homestead credit, the increase would add $253 to the tax bill.

In Union Township, it would increase taxes by 22 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, increasing taxes by $215 on a house valued at $200,000.

In MSD Boone Township, the proposal would increase property taxes by an additional 23.38 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. For a house valued at $145,000, it would add $144 to the tax bill.

State cuts to school funding and changing the funding mechanism from property taxes to sales taxes have put many school districts in a bind. Add the increased funds headed toward charter and private schools, and you have a perfect storm for traditional public schools.

Munster Superintendent Richard Sopko said the district will have to make $3.8 million in cuts if the referendum fails.

“We’re talking programs, teachers, class sizes will go up, and we’ll lose a lot of aides and support staff,” Sopko said. “We’ve already cut in so many areas. You simply won’t recognize the Munster schools with cuts this deep.”

Sopko said the state funding formula “screams to be modified” but changes have been slow in coming.

“We’re the No. 3 district in the state test-score wise,” Sopko said. “But we’re 358th out of the 367 districts in the state in terms of per pupil funding (about $4,700).”

Union Township Superintendent John Hunter said the district started talking to parent groups about going the referendum route last fall.

“We have great schools in our community, so it would be unfortunate if we would have to cut teachers and programming,” Hunter said.

The district would lose $1 million — or about one-tenth of its budget — if the proposal doesn’t pass.

Hunter said UT schools are getting a “miniscule” increase in state funding for the next two years, while private schools will get $5,500 per student under the proposed voucher expansion bill.

Boone Township Superintendent George Letz said the referendum is the only option for districts when the state fails to adequately fund schools.

The measure would generate $530,000 a year for the Boone Township’s general operating fund — about enough to fund 10 teaching positions, Letz said.

School districts have been required to bring funding measures for construction or employees before the voters since 2008.

The first few referendums introduced across the state — including Lake Central School Corp. in 2008 — went down in defeat.

Statewide, exactly 50 percent of general fund referendums have passed, while about 40 percent of construction referendums succeeded.

As the economy has improved slightly, more districts are going the referendum route and seeing success at the ballot box, including Crown Point and Duneland schools for general fund increases and Lake Central for a revised construction referendum.

There are no big political races to drive turnout on primary Election Day, so referendums must have motivated community groups to succeed.

Volunteers from Hebron’s Citizens United for Quality Education, FUTURE in Union Township and Schools Worth Saving in Munster are knocking on doors, handing out yard signs and calling voters.

FUTURE co-chairman Sam DiMaio said it can be a tough sell asking homeowners to vote to raise taxes in a still struggling economy.

“You know nobody’s jumping up and down when we’re saying this is going to have a tax increase,” DiMaio said. “Let’s face it; my kids are long gone from the system, but I want them to have the same opportunities my daughters did. For people who are looking to buy a house, their No. 1 consideration is how is the school system.”



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