Forums abound, put meaning in 'community'

Tribune-Star/Austen LeakeBig decisions: The Vigo County Public Library hosted a forum on the referendums on Thursday.

Critical thinking finds solutions to perplexing problems. It leads to innovative changes, instead of the same-old-same-old.

Students from elementary school to graduate school are pushed to think critically. That means they study and evaluate an issue before finalizing a decision.

That's happened a lot more than usual, on a community level, in the past year leading up to the Terre Haute city election on Nov. 5.

Residents have attended nearly 80 public forums related to the Vigo County schools, the prospective casino and the races for city offices and town board seats. The Vigo County School Corp. and its superintendent Rob Haworth conducted dozens of those community forums on the district's finances and future needs, including 45 in the fall of 2018, four this summer, and 15 more this fall.

Three mayoral candidates participated in almost a dozen debates, town halls or individual forums. A debate among Terre Haute City Council candidates is coming Tuesday. The League of Women Voters and the American Democracy Project at Indiana State University conducted a forum Thursday evening at the Vigo County Public Library on two countywide referendums concerning the casino proposal and a property tax increase to fund school operations.

The opportunities to listen, learn, comment, agree or disagree exceeds any other season in recent memory. The welcoming of community engagement has been a refreshing twist after residents' concerns were treated as afterthoughts as county officials pushed through their plan for a new jail.

The school and city election forums have produced a flow of ideas to tackle genuine problems and improve life for current residents and, importantly, their grandchildren.

The best of those ideas shouldn't fade away on Nov. 6, regardless of the election's outcomes.

Haworth and the school district have given residents a prime role in determining how to handle at least $4 million in cuts necessary to maintain an appropriate cash balance. The increased numbers and cost of security and student mental health staff has dwindled the cash balance, according to the VCSC. If voters turn down the referendum to increase property taxes — an extra $53 per year for a taxpayer with a gross home value of $100,000 — cuts are expected to reach $8 million. Last week, the VCSC released a compilation of citizens' suggestions for cuts and potential new sources of revenue. Those ideas were gathered at the community forums.

They're thoughtful, not rash. The public's recommendations for cost cutting include tough choices like redistricting or consolidating schools, and implementing retirement incentives for veteran teachers. Residents also suggested combining bus routes, staggering start times for elementary and secondary schools to ease transportation, reevaluating administrators' jobs and duties, and adopting a four-day week.

Ideas to generate revenue included seeking partnerships and sponsors from businesses, absorbing the Covered Bridge Special Education District into the VCSC, renting district facilities to community groups for special events, and expanding the new virtual school's reach beyond Vigo County, among others.

Brainstorming and discussions at the school forums have an impact beyond the district and its classrooms. Among several topics dwelt upon in both the school and city election forums was Terre Haute's declining population, especially among young family-age residents. The city is one of a handful of Indiana metros projected to lose population by 2050, while the majority of Hoosier metros are expected to add thousands or tens of thousands of residents.

The VCSC can put a number on the consequences of that decline. The enrollment shrinkage by 173 students this fall calculates to a revenue drop of $1,126,230 in state per-pupil funding. But there's a yet-undetermined cost to the community, as well, every year those numbers decrease — a slide that's continued through most of the 21st century. The town has fewer future business people, teachers, taxpayers, firefighters, engineers, nurses and, yes, mayors and city council members.

Problems affecting schools affect the entire population, and vice versa.

Mayoral candidates offered a variety of ideas to reverse the situation, and cope with it in the meantime. Acting is important.

"If we're always in retreat mode — that's all we're doing is retreating, retreating and retreating — I don't believe people will want to come here, live here, settle here, bring their families here," Haworth said last month, when the enrollment figures were released. "That's why these community meetings are so important, not just for a discussion about our schools but a discussion for our entire community."

Civic engagement should continue after this election and the next. Local forums on a gamut of prospects and problems should go on, too. That's how communities revitalize and avoid stagnation. 

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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