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Morris outlines proposed tax referendum

Morris outlines proposed tax referendum
Morris outlines proposed tax referendum
Illustration by Christy Yost
J.C. Lyell, Staff Writer, [email protected]

After the Lanesville Community School Corp.’s December board meeting last Tuesday, Steve Morris, superintendent of the corporation and Lanesville Junior-Senior High School principal, hosted a special-interest meeting for invited members of the community in the school’s cafeteria. About 20 Lanesville-area residents from a variety of walks of life attended to discuss a referendum proposed by LCSC officials that will likely be included on Franklin Township voters’ ballots in the 2020 primary election in May.

“I’m always wary because the bottom line is we are asking you and the members of Franklin Township to continue paying additional tax dollars to support our Lanesville schools,” Morris said at the start of the meeting.

The discussion was initially planned to be a public hearing, but Morris said administrators decided they first wanted to present the budgeting specifics of the plan to a group of “key communicators” before formally approving a motion to put the referendum on the ballot.

Parents of students and other members of the public will still have an opportunity to ask questions at an upcoming informational meeting.

The referendum would decide whether or not LCSC will continue to include a 17-cent (per $100 of assessed property value) referendum tax rate in the corporation’s annual budget submissions to the state for the next seven years.

A 2014 referendum established the 17-cent rate when it narrowly passed by a count of 419 for and 367 against the measure. That vote stipulated that the rate would stand for seven years, which means it will expire after 2021’s property tax rates are set.

The 2020 referendum, if passed, would overwrite the last year of the prior referendum’s effect and expire after 2027’s property tax rates are determined.

The referendum fund is one of three school corporation budget categories considered by the Indiana Dept. of Local Government and Finance in determining tax rates for properties in each school district. The other categories considered are operations, which covers utilities, building improvements, maintenance and purchase of equipment/buses, and debt services, which budgets for building leases, construction bonds and uncollected textbook rentals.

The fourth budget category, education, is used to determine a corporation’s state funding. It includes most staff and administrator salaries, benefits and instructional supplies.

Much of Lanesville schools’ local funding is generated by property taxes, though Harrison County public school corporations also receive some funding from riverboat gaming revenues.

The passage of the 2014 referendum means that a maximum of 17 cents can be factored into the referendum rate in addition to the rates the DLGF sets for the other two categories.

The actual amounts for each category are determined by the DLGF based on the corporation’s budget submission for each year. LCSC’s 73.2-cent property tax rate for 2020, made public last week, is comprised of 16.63 cents for the debt services fund, 42.31 cents for the operations fund and 14.26 cents for the referendum fund.

The additional revenue generated as a result of the referendum rate, which would reach a total of $272,539 in 2020, is subject to oversight through the DLGF and the standard budgeting process for public school corporations.

Morris said the proposed referendum should not be interpreted as an indication of a poor financial standing at the corporation.

“I want to be totally transparent,” he said. “Our current cash balance is in very good shape.”

The corporation has cut costs during Morris’ tenure, he said, by trimming administrative staff to just three positions, eliminating benefits for instructional assistants and taking part in health insurance, special education and vocational cooperatives that reduce the financial burdens of these programs.

The 2014 referendum fund has provided a cushion, Morris said, that led to a number of improvements that likely would not have been possible without the additional revenue.

He said a handful of teaching positions were added since the 2014 vote to help reduce class sizes and the corporation has hired or retained certified staff in several positions where many schools have been forced to place uncertified personnel due to budget restraints.

The referendum fund also led to the hiring of a digital learning coach, who works with teachers to help integrate technology into curriculums, and the money covers part of the school resource officer’s pay as well.

Morris said the corporation’s intercession program, which helps struggling students earn passing grades in special class sessions outside of regular school days, is another direct result of budgeting flexibility provided by the referendum fund.

This school year, the fund will help cover a $461,303 difference between the $5.3 million education budget LCSC submitted to the state and the $4.8 million it was actually allocated to receive.

Morris said if the 2020 referendum passes, it will ensure that Lanesville schools can remain competitive in terms of teachers’ compensation.

“Teacher pay this year in Indiana has been a very big issue and will continue to be over the coming years,” he said.

For the 2019-20 school year, the starting salary for teachers at Lanesville schools is $37,000 per year, and the pay schedule maxes out at $70,000 after 24 years of teaching. Morris said this is on par with salary tables of most public school corporations in the state.

“As far as working in the education system, you shouldn’t have to take a vow of poverty to do so,” Morris said.

Several of those present at the meeting told Morris they were happy the referendum will not ask to raise taxes, but only to continue with the rate passed in 2014.

Though most attendees said they supported the proposed continuation of the 17-cent rate, many agreed that opponents of the measure would point to Lanesville’s high percentage of out-of-district students attending its schools as a reason to vote against the referendum.

About 40% of LCSC students live out of its district, compared to 11.9% at North Harrison Community School Corp. and 4.6% at the South Harrison district.

This can be seen as a positive feature of Lanesville schools, Morris said, because state funding is based on enrollment totals. He said out-of-district students bring the corporation an additional $1.5 million in revenue.

“We count the revenue they bring in, but we don’t count the costs,” said Joe Magner, a Franklin Township resident and father of four Lanesville students.

Magner later added that he supports continuing with the referendum rate but wanted to know how to respond if he were to face that criticism while discussing the issue with potential voters.

Morris said it actually costs the corporation less to teach out-of-district students than in-district students because schools are not required to provide transportation for the former. He said some of the funding the state provides for these students is put toward adding staff when necessary, but that cost doesn’t consume the entire amount provided, and the rest is spent on programs that benefit both in- and out-of-district students.

Many operational expenses, Morris said, would still remain, even if the district had no out-of-district students, so the funding they bring in helps to alleviate them.

Having a high number of these students also means the corporation can more easily control its total student count because it can limit the number of out-of-district students it takes in, while in-district students cannot be turned away.

This is important to LCSC, he said, because the corporation had 740 students on the 2019-20 official count date.

“Facility-wise, I think about 800 is the maximum this facility can support,” Morris said.

The informational meeting for members of the public is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 28, at 7 p.m. in the school cafeteria.

Official action on whether or not to go through with the referendum will then likely be taken at a special board meeting Tuesday, Feb. 11, in the Carl Uesseler Corporation Office.