Monday, October 26, 2009

HSE Referendum

Dr. Brian Smith, Hamilton Southeastern School's Superintendent of Schools, was the guest speaker at the Hamilton County Division of MIBOR (Metropolitan Indianapolis Board of Realtors.) He was there to promote the November 10th, 2009 special election on the HSE Schools Referendum and their upcoming law suit with the State of Indiana. He gave a very compelling speech as to why it was important for those homeowners in his school district to voluntarily raise their property taxes the very first year that they would enjoy the new hard fought for new tax rates.

In his speech Dr. Smith spoke of his concern for the budget cuts costing up to 60 teachers positions increasing class sizes for the elementary kids from around 24 to 30 or even more. He spoke to studies on how if children are not fully integrated to become readers by third grade that they never catch up. He made the point that "from grades 1-3 they are learning to read, and from then on they are reading to learn."

One of the things he mentioned was that he has had a very difficult time getting in front of people to explain his proposals since the meetings he has attended to present this referendum were very scantily attended, unlike the swine flu meetings that overflowed. Dr. Smith made slightly veiled threats that one of the places that they may have to cut would be High School athletics, including possibly football. He suggested if he made that proposal he would expect a much larger crowd attending the meetings.

Let me first state that I have no intention of taking sides on this issue, I don't have children in the HSE school district, and I don't own property there. While I may have ideological preferences, this is something that those involved should decide. My goal here is to present information to help make those decisions, and maybe through in an editorial comment on the concept in general.

Some of the ironies that he pointed out in the way the Indiana Legislator distributes funds to school systems was that the more a school system grows and the higher the test scores the less the State allows for each student. Conversely for schools that are failing and have an ever decreasing enrollment the State gives more per student. This is a formula that rewards failure while punishing success. Hamilton Southeastern Schools are suing the State for this system. He claims that if they win this suit that they would "voluntarily" end the referendum and stop taking the excess funds. I would question this without a legal binding contract saying that and not leaving it to their good intentions.

Over the past ten years HSE has had a 136% increase in student enrollment, and a 127% increase in teachers and a 95% increase in administration staff. When you compare HSE's ratio of 160:1 of student's to licensed employee to Noblesville's 137:1, Lawrence Twnp's 110:1, Carmel's 74:1, IPS's 48:1, and Gary's 45:1 you can see that they are already stretching their resources.

The State's General Fund is distributed to school systems in a most interesting and inequitable way. Once again, dropping enrollment and failing scores increase the state money while high scores and growing populations bring less. The legislators are telling them that they believe that students whose parents make more money need less of their tax dollars distributed to them to succeed. To give you an example the State gives Gary Schools 10,000.00/student where HSE is given 5,800.00/student, HSE is asking for about 500.00 more per student.

There is, according to Dr. Smith, a 5 million dollar structural deficit. This comes after the district already made up 3.3 million in reductions for the 2009-2010 school year. To close this 5 million dollar gap with more reductions would require extreme measures, such as cutting another 50-60 teachers.

Hamilton Southeastern is trying to close that budget deficit for year 2010-2011 with a 5.5 million dollar referendum. State laws permit a community to raise funds through property taxes by passing a referendum with an election. This referendum, by law, would be in effect for seven years, paying mostly teacher's salaries with an additional 5.5 million dollars each year for the next seven years. The special election will cost HSE Schools around 50,000.00 to 60,000.00 since it isn't run during a normal election day cycle.

What effect would this have on home owner's property taxes? It would raise them about 11.00/year for a 100,000.00 home, 44.00/yr for a 250,000.00 home, and 75.00/yr for a 400,000.00 home. This of course would be a property tax increase the very first year that Governor Daniel's new 1% tax rate would go into effect. Something that should be considered is how hard it was to get the state to work out the reduced tax rates. If you add this little bit, then the police dept, does a referendum, then the fire dept. then park dept, etc, tax rates are soaring once again. Be careful opening the gate.

Dr. Smith also mentioned that it is against Indiana law for funds allocated for buildings to be used for salaries, so cutting costs in the buildings wouldn't solve this issue. However, I would have to ask, if the cost of buildings were reduced significantly couldn't the overall costs be shifted maybe even at legislative level. I question why we must keep building these temples of excess as our schools? Why not copy the trend we see the mega-churches are building with glorified pole barns, they are functional, last with low cost to maintain, and while more modest, cost a great deal less. It would seem to me that the lower the costs in total, the more that can be directed toward actual education.

Further could this be an argument for a school voucher system? Why not stop paying nearly 10,000.00 per student in failing school systems, and only half that in successful schools? Why not find a middle ground in a voucher where parents can take their kids to whatever school they want and not trap their kids in bad schools? If we open the educational factory systems to true free market competition, even allowing those vouchers to go to private as well as public schools. If this was done the competition would reduce overall costs and would improve educational results. If a school wasn't working parents would take their kids out and move them where it is.

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