On May 8, constituents of two area school districts will decide the fate of school improvement projects. Referendums will appear on the ballots of voters in Fort Wayne Community Schools and East Allen County Schools. Both referendums have been a long time coming: FWCS, with its failed building project several years ago, hasn't had any major upgrades since and EACS redesign project when it was approved in late 2010 required closing, consolidation and building rehab.
New approach to old problem
FWCS board member John Pierce said this time around, the referendum process feels much different.
Maybe its because this time its less money, or maybe it's the fact that FWCS did all the work itself, without the help of an Indianapolis-based firm.
Pierce, the rest of the board and the district are hoping for a different result this year than in 2007, the last time the district placed a referendum question on the ballot.
When that $500 million project was voted down, the district took lessons learned and have applied them to the upcoming $119 million referendum.
The $119 million will pay for improvements at 36 schools including roof section replacements, chiller additions, HVAC upgrades and classroom improvements.
The project focuses on 10 school buildings that will receive the most major renovations: Snider High School, Memorial Park and Jefferson middle schools, and Weisser Park, Haley, Croninger, Harris, Bloomingdale and Irwin elementary schools.
The total also includes some roof catch-ups at 28 buildings - including five of the 10 mentioned above - window and masonry work at eight buildings and the addition of chillers at six buildings.
While the project begins to address the district's needs, all schools still won't be fully air conditioned, and work will still be needed at other buildings in the coming years.
Additional phases will be voted on in later years, with new debt adding after old debt falls off keeping the tax rate level. This first phase will increase a homeowner's tax bill about $27 for a home with an assessed value of about $90,000.
Without a referendum, FWCS on its own cannot support any major building improvement projects because of a lack of funding.
Building improvements or upgrades are paid for out of the capital projects fund (CPF), a fund that has lost about $8 million since 2004. The fund is property-tax supported, but also pays for other items such as insurance and utilities and the racial balance fund, which supports magnets and other special FWCS programs.
CPF also will continue to lose money because of property tax caps. In the three years, tax caps have been in affect the fund has lost more than $3 million.
The loss of funding coupled with the district's aging buildings, the average approaching 55-years-old, has created a dire situation for FWCS. Some buildings are in such disrepair that district and facilities officials are concerned about the possibility of the failure of a major system, such as heating or water, which would force the district to close a school.
But while the economic climate is right to build buildings, with construction costs and interest rates still low, voters across the state are not approving tax increases.
Despite this, the Chamber of Commerce and Upstate Alliance of REALTORS (Upstar) announced at a joint news conference on Tuesday it supported Repair FWCS, the political action committee formed to gather community support for the project.
Not many have come out opposed to the referendum, at least not publicly.
But FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said apathy, not necessarily opposition, could be the district's biggest hurdle.
East Allen referendum round 2
East Allen County Schools is going back to constituents for a second time in two years, hoping for a tax increase to support the district.
The $8 million referendum for operating expenses in 2010 was defeated by a staggering majority.
On May 8, EACS voters will say yes or no to an almost $89 million project which includes a renovated New Haven Intermediate School at the current site of Park Hill Learning Center, additions at New Haven High School to accommodate seventh- and eighth-graders and renovations at the former Harding High School to create East Allen University.
The project by itself is expected to raise the taxes of a homeowner with an assessed value of $100,000 by $67 per year.
But Woodlan-area voters have approved a $10.8 million project for renovations at the Woodlan K-12 campus. A final count of signatures hasn't been released in the remonstrance petition drive for the $11.9 million building project in the Heritage area, but preliminary numbers showed strong support for the project.
If all three projects are approved, it would raise the taxes on a $100,000 home by about $83 a year.
The projects are the result of the district's redesign plan, approved by the board in 2010.
The plan was the board's solution to declining enrollment and decreasing revenues.
The plan consolidated elementary schools and kept all five high schools to create feeder areas in each attendance area: Heritage, Woodlan, Leo, New Haven and Harding. The plan also called for the creation of a magnet program, East Allen Univeristy, in the Harding area.
If the referendum fails, board president Neil Reynolds said the schools the district has closed will remain closed and the magnet program will move forward as planned.
"We'll have to sit down and rethink what we want to do," he said.
New Haven Mayor Terry McDonald has opposed the redesign project from the start, advocating for deeper cuts and a focus at the elementary level not on keeping all five of the high schools. He said if voters reject the referendum he doesn't believe it would put the district in an emergency situation.
"Those buildings aren't new, but they aren't in bad shape," he said. "Students are learning even if they are a bit crowded."
He said he's not sure of the likelihood of the referendum's approval, but the majority of people he's talked to haven't been supportive.
He hopes if the referendum fails, the board looks into developing a new redesign plan.
"(Superintendent Karyle Green and I) have the same goal to be the premiere school corporation. We just see different ways of getting there," he said.