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School closings, layoffs, busing cutbacks follow failed referendum votes in 3 Lake Co. cities

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Unlike ballots cast for political candidates, a school referendum defeat can lead to consequences that educators worry will harm students.

When voters rejected property tax school referendums last November in three Lake County districts, it created a wave of recent layoffs, school closings and a reduction in busing leading to e-learning days.

Last week, the Lake Station School Board trimmed school bus transportation to three days a week, leaving students at home in front of their laptops for the other two days.

referendum

Carole Carlson/Post-Tribune

Lake Station Community Schools Superintendent Tom Cripliver, left, checks the early voting count in November 2023 as results were tallied at city hall. A referendum that would have added $1.3 million to the school’s budget for eight years was defeated. (Carole Carlson/Post-Tribune)

School officials said the district needed $466,000 of its $1.3 million in referendum money, first approved by voters in 2017, to sustain its transportation.

In November, voters failed to renew that referendum by 14 votes.

The school board is expected to hold another referendum vote in the November general election.

Kenwood Elementary first grader De'Janae Steel, flanked by her dad and two friends, tells the School City of Hammond Board of Trustees what she thinks of its cost-cutting measures. The board voted 3-2 to close three schools, including Kenwood, and shed 173 employees at its April 23 meeting. (Michelle L. Quinn/Post-Tribune)
Kenwood Elementary first grader De’Janae Steel, flanked by her dad and two friends, tells the School City of Hammond Board of Trustees what she thinks of its cost-cutting measures. The board voted 3-2 to close three schools, including Kenwood, and shed 173 employees at its April 23 meeting. (Michelle L. Quinn/Post-Tribune)

In Indiana, the shelf life of a referendum is eight years. If a school district wants to keep the funding going, it must ask voters to extend the referendum.

The state’s GOP lawmakers, who hold majorities in both chambers, recently tweaked the wording voters see on their ballots.

School officials said the new language confused voters who thought they were facing a vote on new taxes. In reality, a “yes” vote meant the referendum revenue would continue in districts where voters already approved a referendum, like Lake Station and Hammond.

Hammond school board

School City of Hammond board president Lisa Miller, on right, responds to board member Carlotta Blake-King during a public meeting on Tuesday, January 9, 2024. (Kyle Telechan for the Post-Tribune)

Kyle Telechan/Post-Tribune

School City of Hammond board president Lisa Miller, on right, responds to board member Carlotta Blake-King during a public meeting on Tuesday, January 9, 2024. (Kyle Telechan for the Post-Tribune)

It would mean a tax increase in a district that’s never sought or won a referendum.

Urban school districts and cities in Lake County have nearly all held referendum votes. Those cities have more layers of government but are losing population and their industrial tax base. The result is a shrinking pie to split.

School districts are also dependent on enrollment and when it declines, so does state funding. They’re left with strained property taxes near or at the tax cap.

School Superintendent Scott Miller addresses the parents, students, and teachers during the ribbon cutting of the new Hammond Central High School in Hammond, In., on Thursday, July 22, 2021. (John Smierciak/for Post-Tribune)

John Smierciak / Post-Tribune

School Superintendent Scott Miller addresses the parents, students, and teachers during the ribbon cutting of the new Hammond Central High School on July 22, 2021. (John Smierciak/for Post-Tribune)

“The reason the referendum is necessary is because of circuit breakers on taxes,” said Lake Station school board member Kevin Music last week.

Music said the tax caps cost the school district nearly $1.6 million. “That’s why we had the referendum and that’s why we want to continue it,” he said.

Under a 2006 state law backed by then-GOP governor Mitch Daniels, school districts must ask voters for more revenue if they want to exceed the 2% tax cap, a measure lawmakers felt would offer homeowners more property tax stability.

Referendum-approved tax increases, or extensions, are not subject to the tax caps. School districts can seek voter referendums for operating expenses and for construction projects.

In November, the School City of Hammond placed both of those referendum questions on the ballot and voters soundly rejected each one by more than 70%.

The result led Superintendent Scott Miller to predict a “doomsday” scenario.

The state Distressed Unit Appeal Board stepped in after the failed votes, telling Hammond it couldn’t operate with budget deficits and to establish a corrective action plan, which is code for massive cuts.

In April, the school board voted to close Wallace, Morton and Kenwood elementary schools, despite backlash from teachers and parents. The move saved $5.6 million.

Miller said after the referendum defeat, it could mean the layoffs of 200 to 250 employees.

“They’re real people,” Miller said at a May 21 school board meeting. “They’re real souls, and they’re serving our kids. We’re taking 200 people and their 30 to 40 hours worth of output a week out of our school community.”

As the meeting descended into acrimonious vitriol, board member Carlotta Blake-King called Miller “a criminal” for his handling of the district’s finances.

“You don’t get to call me a criminal,” Miller shot back.

“This is a bloodbath and the citizens of Hammond have been subjected to it for no reason of their own,” said Blake-King.

Educators believe waging ballot box campaigns for more tax money is an untenable funding strategy for the state’s traditional public schools. School votes can also divide communities whose residents often wage social media squabbles with each other.

Lake Station’s move to cut busing unleashed a barrage of criticism on social media, but Superintendent Thomas Cripliver said he’s only received one call from a parent.

“Referendums are not the way we need to fund our schools,” said Indiana Federation of Teachers president GlenEva Dunham earlier this year. She also heads the Gary Teachers Union.

Last year, lawmakers made the revenue pot districts receive from winning referendums even smaller by requiring them to share the funding with charter schools in their district.

Miller said it would have meant $833,521 from its referendum revenue would go to charters in the city each year.

For Whiting, last year marked its first bid for a referendum. Superintendent Cynthia Scroggins said the district’s operations fund was hit hard by tax cap losses and decreasing enrollment.

School officials were stunned by the referendum’s defeat last year, saying it would have provided about $1 million annually over the eight-year span to aid operations.

She said it would have translated to $10 more a month for taxpayers.

To make up the revenue loss, she said Whiting opened its enrollment to non-resident students in hopes of attracting more students.

To safeguard school counseling services from cuts, the district secured a two-year grant from the city’s redevelopment commission.

The district is launching a “pay-to-play” transportation fee for athletes and students in other extra-curricular activities to defer transportation costs. Parents will also be levied a bus fee for field trips.

Whiting is also cutting some outside vendor contracts to save money.

Summer school has been eliminated for middle school and for most elementary school students.

Bus purchasing has been delayed and extra-curricular and athletic offerings have been decreased.

Carole Carlson is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.

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