Vigo County School Corp. officials undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday night after voters gave a thumbs up to an operational referendum that will help fund school safety, health, wellness, transportation and teacher pay while the district responds to its financial challenges.
With 14 of 14 voting centers counting, and 86 of 88 precincts reporting, the referendum passed by a vote of 12,773 in favor, or 54.1 percent of the vote, to 10,839 opposed or 45.9 percent.
“This community loves its schools,” Superintendent Rob Haworth said during a news conference after the election results were known. “In the end, I think seeing the connection between school and a community that’s prosperous won tonight.”
In recent months, he’s attended more than 50 meetings to explain the referendum and why it was needed and also to answer questions.
Other communities in Indiana did not pass their school referendums Tuesday, and Haworth said he felt “thankful we have a community that supports our students and our staff.”
Tammy Pearson, who was involved in the Vote Yes for Vigo County Schools political action committee, believes those community meetings were key to the successful referendum. For those who attended, “It helped for them to have a voice and say what they felt needed to be changed ... and they felt listened to. And I think that made a big difference.”
But along with the referendum, the district has proposed $5.5 million in spending cuts and revenue enhancements, also necessary to address the district’s declining cash balance. “The real work really starts now,” Haworth said, as the School Board must now act on the those cuts.
The district issued the following statement:
“The Vigo County School Corp. thanks the community for their investment in the safety, security, and health of our students and staff. Our funding isn’t keeping up with inflation, and with declining enrollment, this vote was vital to the financial health of our schools.
“Over the course of over 50 meetings, we listened to our community’s priorities. Tuesday’s vote on the referendum means that we can continue our recent investments in safety, security, and health. It also means that we can dedicate $3 million per year to making our teacher compensation more competitive with area districts. Our transportation budget is also impacted by tax caps each year, and $1 million of this referendum will help offset those losses.
“This referendum is a bridge to our future, and we will continue to seek community input as we make spending cuts to adjust our budget to declining enrollment. We are still moving forward with millions of dollars of spending cuts and revenue enhancement to adapt to our current funding. This referendum allows us to make those decisions in a reasonable timeframe and seek community input along the way.
“We look forward to continuing this conversation with our community. Ultimately, we believe that a strong school system can help spark growth in Vigo County.”
The district had said if the referendum didn’t pass, it would have to make $8 million in spending cuts instead of $4 million in cuts.
The countywide referendum will increase property taxes by $7 million per year for eight years, with a tax rate of 16.22 cents per $100 assessed value. That calculates to $53 a year for the owner of a home with a market value of $100,000 (or a net assessed value of $32,750).
Proposed cuts, coupled with the referendum, were in response to the district’s declining cash balance, which has gone from $33.8 million in 2016 to a projected $13.5 million by the end of this year. The reasons for the cash balance decline include enrollment loss, which results in revenue loss because state funding follows the student.
Also, total state funding has not been keeping up with inflation. In addition, the district in recent years has increased staffing related to safety, health and wellness.
In June, the district announced a two-step response to its budget challenges: $4 million in cuts along with the operational referendum.
After a series of community meetings, Haworth on Oct. 21 announced a plan calling for $5.5 million in spending cuts and revenue enhancements that involve three fewer elementary schools, selling the downtown administration building, cutting pay for top central office administrators and consolidating alternative education at the Booker T. Washington building.
The cuts, subject to board approval, would be implemented in three phases.
The district had challenges to overcome in winning passage of the referendum. Those included the VCSC’s past financial legal troubles, increased taxes and user fees for other county and city services and projects, and a looming school renovation referendum in 2021 expected to be much more expensive than this fall’s request.
To help gain public support for the VCSC referendum, the Vote Yes for Vigo County Schools PAC was formed. Lori Danielson, who volunteered with the PAC, also attended Tuesday’s news conference.
“We’re very, very proud of the community and the effort put forth to move this forward,” she said.
In the end, voters showed up at the polls and made their voices heard, Danielson said.
“It’s just so powerful that that voice came through with, ‘We care about safety. We care about students. We care about schools.’”
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.