First of all, I want to express my thanks to SGCS superintendent Dan Hile for hosting the public forums this week and updating the community on the status of the school system. I appreciate his transparency, and the forums were helpful in putting to rest some rumors that had been circulating about the school. Thank you also for reminding us of the many reasons we have to be proud of our school and our community. As someone who recieved 12 years of my primary and secondary education at SGCS and whose children now attend as fourth-generation ’Busco students, to say that I am a proponent of public schools, and specifically this public school, might be an understatement. I think it is critical for our community to understand that the need for a tax referendum should not be seen as a sign that the school’s finances have been mismanaged. Since property taxes in Indiana were capped at 1 percent for residential property and 2 percent for agricultural property in 2008, our public schools have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. It is great for us as taxpayers, resulting in property taxes that are much lower than our neighbors in Illinois for example, but it has been a blow to our public schools. The tax caps became part of the Indiana Constitution in 2010, so they are here to stay. That leaves public schools with only two options to increase funding: 1. increase enrollment or 2. tax referendums.
The projections at the forum showed declining enrollment in the coming years at SGCS which results in decreased state funding. To reverse that trend, we need to encourage housing development in our community. I have had numerous recent conversations with parents of school-aged children who would like to live in the SGCS district but can’t find a suitable house or property. The current development at Thresher’s Ridge is a step in the right direction, but there needs to be more like it. Consider that a 20-acre piece of agricultural property may generate property taxes of $1,200 while that same 20-acre parcel divided into twenty one-acre lots, each with a $120,000 house on it, will generate $24,000 in property taxes. That’s a 20-fold increase in tax revenue for the school district on that 20 acres, not to mention more housing for families that will send children to SGCS. Churubusco is much better off than many rural districts because the community is an attractive option for development. Many rural Indiana school districts have seen no new housing developments since the 1970s. We are a bedroom community to Fort Wayne, so we can live here and have a short commute to a major city with good job opportunities. We are also in position to benefit from the northward growth and expansion of Fort Wayne. That is a luxury that many rural school districts do not have. Consider the decisions facing districts like Argos or even Whitko, where the school’s distance from a major city is creating increasing challenges.
In fact, in an article about Whitko in this paper just last week, SGCS was cited as an example of how to save costs by housing students in one building as Whitko considers closing buildings and possibly even moving the high school. As far as referendums go, we need to realize that this is the new normal. Public schools are left with few other options and the current Tax Reform Bill includes two provisions that will put even further strain on public school budgets. Since the property tax caps were put in place, over 100 tax referendums have been passed by school districts around the state. Even districts that some might consider “wealthy” like Carmel and Southwest Allen have passed operating referendums. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, in fact, it shows that the district cares about its school. This might be the first time SGCS has considered a referendum, but with the property tax situation in Indiana, it may not be the last. Property tax referendums put the future of the school system in the hands of the residents of the school district. Last year, Columbia City invested in the future of their community by passing an $85 million referendum for a new high school.
The two districts I mentioned earlier, Argos and Whitko, both put referendums on the ballot in recent years and both were voted down. Now those school districts are faced with painful decisions, drastic cuts or even closure. Argos Superintendent Michelle Nice said in a 2016 interview: “Once the school goes, everyone goes elsewhere because they want to be near the school they’re sending their kids to. If the school goes, so goes the town.” There have been several very small school corporations in Indiana that have done referendums, corporations with less than 1,000 students. Most have passed, and most by landslide margins, which tells me that small communities realize their school system might cease to exist if they don’t get the necessary funding. Those folks are willing to pay higher property taxes in order to maintain their school corporation. Voting to increase your property taxes may seem strange and you may be tempted to vote against a referendum in order to keep your property taxes low. Just remember that when a school system shuts down and the town goes with it, you won’t be worried about your property taxes, you’ll be worried about your property value.
As Mr. Hile reminded us, every time this community has faced a challenge, the residents have risen to the ocassion to meet it. Our school will be counting on us to do it again.
CHS Class of 1996