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School district weighs repairs

Mishawaka may ask for tax hike in referendum

– Property tax caps and a heavily residential tax base could force a northern Indiana school district to ask voters to approve a referendum to help fix aging facilities this fall.

School City of Mishawaka officials say the district has a slew of repairs it needs to make, ranging from inefficient heating systems to stadium lights at the high school. But it can’t borrow the estimated $28 million cost, and a 2008 state law requires schools to seek voters’ permission before embarking on construction projects.

“It was scary to hear of all the needs,” school board President Denny Wood said. “We can’t put a Band-Aid on this anymore. … But money’s the big thing.”

Lawmakers in 2008 passed a law that established referendums as a mechanism for school funding amid worries about property tax growth, said Terry Spradlin, with the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University.

Then-Gov. Mitch Daniels “was very critical of what he called the ‘Taj Mahals,’ schools that were building lavish facilities, particularly football stadiums,” Spradlin told the South Bend Tribune.

The referendums put decisions about high-dollar school spending squarely in the hands of the voters. But the process has met with mixed success. Only 16 of 40 construction referendums since 2008 have won approval, Spradlin said.

Spradlin said the number of referendums being scheduled has declined in recent years. Next week, Hamilton Southeastern School Corp. in Fishers will ask voters to approve money to add on to schools to accommodate growth in the Indianapolis suburb. But that’s an exception, Spradlin said.

“Superintendents are leery of having to wage a political campaign,” he said. “It is a challenge. So rather than do major renovations (to buildings), superintendents are trying to piecemeal (projects) and do regular, ongoing maintenance and repair.”

Mishawaka Superintendent Terry Barker said the roughly 60 items on his district’s wish list includes addressing safety concerns by reconfiguring some school entryways to funnel visitors directly to the office.

Then there are the lights at Mishawaka High School’s Steele Stadium. Barker said he always hopes they don’t have to wait until Saturday for them to come on for a Friday night game.

“The wiring is shot,” he said. “It’s been there thirty-some years.”

Barker said he plans to explain the district’s facilities needs to residents during a series of meetings at each school before moving to a formal referendum.

If public sentiment appears to be favorable for the projects, Barker said, he’ll develop a recommendation for the board to consider sometime early this summer.

School officials said property taxes on a home valued at $100,000 would increase by about $100 a year if the measure is approved.