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PRIMARY ELECTION: Referendum vote will decide how Northwest Allen County Schools addresses surging enrollment growth northwest of Fort Wayne

Signs such as this one can be seen throughout a large portion of northwest Allen County, where voters will decide during the May 8 primary election whether to approve a $33.98 million referendum that will allow the Northwest Allen County Schools district to build a new elementary school and make safety and other improvements at several other schools. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)
Superintendent Chris Himsel of Northwest Allen County Schools said soaring enrollment growth led the school district to seek a referendum to pay for building a new elementary school. Voters living in the school district will decide whether the project moves forward when casting their ballots in the May 8 primary election. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)

Northwest Allen County Schools officials plan ahead for growth, but they don’t spend money on new buildings until they have to, Superintendent Chris Himsel said.

That’s why the district is asking voters in the school district to approve a referendum May 8 that would allow the NACS to issue bonds totaling $33.98 million or less to build a new elementary school, install safety upgrades at four schools, and address some other safety and efficiency projects.

“We have not crossed our fingers that growth will show up,” Himsel said in a recent interview. “It’s here. It’s already here.”

If approved, the NACS portion of the property tax rate will stay the same or possibly drop slightly for most people who own property within the school district, Himsel said.

The project hasn’t seemed to attract much public opposition, but Himsel and project supporters continue to work hard to educate people about the need for it.

THE WHY

Since NACS opened its newest elementary school, Eel River Elementary, in 2009, district enrollment has increased by more than 500 elementary students — enough to fill a new school.

At the same time, the state of Indiana has required public school districts to offer full-day kindergarten, Himsel said. That means NACS and other public school districts will need twice as many kindergarten classrooms as when they could offer morning and afternoon sessions of half-day kindergarten.

Demographic analysis forecasts the school district’s current enrollment of 7,532 will increase by 300 to 400 elementary students within three to five years, Himsel said. That growth estimate doesn’t include the recently approved Copper Creek development, which will add 677 single-family homes and more than 100 duplexes within the NACS district boundaries.

To accommodate the growth that already has taken place, NACS has had to use two trailer classrooms at Huntertown Elementary, he said. Next school year, the district will need to use four trailer classrooms at the school.

If the district keeps growing at the projected pace, four of its seven elementary schools will need to start using trailer classrooms between 2019 and 2021, Himsel said.

THE OPTIONS

The community has a choice of using more trailer classrooms, expanding existing schools or building a new school, he said.

NACS officials, who have been studying the situation for the past two years, believe building a new elementary school would best serve children and meet the district’s needs, Himsel said.

Trailer classrooms aren’t as good or as safe as regular school classrooms, he said.

Expanding existing schools would provide more space, he said, but that choice would push a building’s enrollment to more than 500 to 600 children, which NACS officials believe is the most efficient size for an elementary school.

That enrollment total allows teachers and staff to meet students’ needs but doesn’t require more than one each of an art teacher, physical education teacher, music teacher and guidance counselor, Himsel said.

In addition, a principal can get to know the names of all of the younger students, which parents value, he added.

If the referendum is approved, NACS intends to save architectural and design costs by using the plans for Eel River Elementary as the plans for the new school, he said.

THE IMPACT

Approving the referendum should cause minimal, if any, change in the NACS portion of landowners’ property tax rates, he said. That results because, in 2020, the school district will complete paying off the bonds used to build Maple Creek Middle School and then could start paying for new elementary school without any significant change in property tax rates.

The school district also has lowered its property tax rate each of the past five years, Himsel said.

However, NACS doesn’t have full control of the factors that determine the actual amount on people’s property bills, he said. Factors that can cause a property owner’s tax bill to rise can include an increase in the assessed value of the person’s property. The person’s tax bill also could increase if another body, such as city, county and township government or the Allen County Public Library system, decides to seek an increase in tax revenue.

Property owners also will be affected, Himsel said, by whether they are below or over the state-mandated property tax cap.

The property tax caps are set at 1 percent of assessed value for residential property, 2 percent for farm ground and 3 percent for nonresidential property.

People whose property tax rates are less than their property tax cap likely will see no change in the NACS portion of their tax rate or may pay slightly less, Himsel said.

He said the impact on people who already are over their property tax cap amount will vary. Worst-case scenario estimates include:

• Pay about $3.48 more per month on a home with an assessed value of $100,000

• Pay about $8.54 more per month on a home with an assessed value of $173,300

• Pay about $13.84 more per month on a home with an assessed value of $250,000

If voters approve the referendum, all property owners will be taxed at the same rate for the referendum project, regardless of whether they own residential, agricultural or commercial property, Himsel said.

THE FUTURE

If the student population continues growing within NACS boundaries, Himsel said the district likely will have to build a new middle school around 2023 to 2025, expand the Carroll High School freshmen center in 2025-2027 and then possibly address space needs in the grades 10-12 portion of the high school in the 2030s or 2040s.

The timing of the middle school and freshmen center projects would allow NACS to pay off an existing school before the district starts paying off the new school or expansion, he said.

2018 REFERENDUM PROJECTS

NACS proposes completing the following work with funds raised by a $33.98 million bond issue, if voters approve a referendum authorizing the bond issue:

• A new elementary school modeled on Eel River Elementary School.

• Renovate the main entrance at Perry Hill Elementary to improve safety and security.

• Renovate main entrance and relocate office at Oak View Elementary to improve safety and security and to create more classroom space.

• Renovate main entrance at Hickory Center Elementary to improve safety and security.

• Renovate main entrance at Arcola Elementary to improve safety and security.

• Perform additional safety and efficiency upgrades at schools.

SAMPLE OF THE BALLOT QUESTION

Here is an example of what the ballot question will look like on the May 8 primary election ballot for people who live within the boundaries of the Northwest Allen County Schools district:

“Shall Northwest Allen County Schools issue bonds or enter into a lease to finance the 2018 Construction, Renovation, Efficiency and Security Project, which includes the purchase of real estate, construction of a new elementary school, and the renovation of and improvements to existing school facilities, including technology and site improvements, which is estimated to cost not more than $33,980,000 and is estimated to increase the property tax rate for debt service by a maximum of $0.1275 per $100 of assessed valuation?”

LEARN MORE

For more information about the Northwest Allen County Schools referendum, go to the NACS website or friendsofnacs.org.

The Friends of NACS group also will provide information and answer questions about the referendum at 6:30 p.m. today at Huntertown Family Park in Huntertown.

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