“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?”
– Construction referendum question for voters in the Northwest Allen County Schools district
Property tax changes in 2008 forever altered the fiscal landscape for Indiana schools – most notably with a public referendum process requiring school districts to ask property owners to pay higher taxes.
Northwest Allen County Schools is the latest to come before voters, with a May 8 referendum question seeking authority to issue bonds for construction of a new elementary school, for the addition of classrooms at another school and for security improvements at five schools. Demographic studies done before the announcement of about 900 new homes showed the building boom in northwest Allen County will bring another 300-500 children to the growing district.
“We have been fortunate in that growth has occurred at a time when we are going to be able to build the new elementary school and fully incur the debt with it at the same time that the Maple Creek Middle School debt will be retired and falling off,” said Superintendent Chris Himsel.
What that means is that property-taxpayers probably won't see an increase in the debt-service portion of their tax bill. In fact, the growing tax base in the district means the rate likely will decrease from the current 70 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. In a worst-case scenario, the $34 million project will cost the owner of a $173,300 home an extra $8.54 a month.
While negotiations are under way for the site of the new elementary school, Himsel said it will be close to the greatest area of growth to keep transportation costs in check.
The superintendent and referendum supporters offer a compelling case for the project's approval. Since Eel River Elementary School opened in 2009, the fast-growing district has seen enrollment at the elementary level increase by about 500 students. The addition of full-day kindergarten programs doubled the number of kindergarten classrooms required.
Wise planning has kept enrollments steady at most of the seven elementary schools, but two portable classrooms are now in use at Huntertown Elementary and two more trailers will be added next fall. Eel River, Cedar Canyon, Oak View and Perry Hill are at capacity or close to it. The trailers are functional, but not ideal from a safety, security or learning standpoint. The extra grade-level sections required by higher enrollment at each elementary building also create inefficiencies.
“Around that 500-600 mark allows us to meet the individual needs of kids,” Himsel said. “It allows us four or five sections per grade level. If we get any bigger than that then we're also going to be increasing inefficiencies in art, music and (physical education) delivery, in guidance counseling and assistant principalships ... without having someone have to travel among buildings. It's just inefficient use of staffing because they can't be teaching while they are driving from one building to another.”
Unlike school referenda campaigns in some communities, Northwest Allen hasn't seen organized opposition to its project request. But the state-prescribed referendum language hints at higher taxes.
“Technically, there is no new tax in this situation,” Himsel said. “It's just using the taxes we already have and reinvesting it into new, safe spaces for kids.”
Secure entrances at Perry Hill, Oak View, Hickory Center and Arcola are an important part of the project. Each was built when no one imagined someone entering a school to harm students or teachers.
Today, schools must be designed to restrict access.
Darren Vogt, a former Allen County councilman who is supporting the referendum as a NACS parent and property owner, said he was surprised when he went to teach a Junior Achievement lesson at Oak View Elementary and found he didn't enter through the school office.
“You walk straight in and there are kids walking around,” he said, “It's not a great set-up. I wish we didn't have to (secure schools), but it's the reality we live in today.”
The referendum question will appear on both Republican and Democratic ballots in the school district. Voters who do not wish to request a partisan ballot may request a referendum-only ballot.
Northwest Allen property owners should have no hesitation supporting the proposal. The district's growing enrollment is a direct result of its success – homeowners want to be in the school district. Property owners who don't have children in school benefit from the demand for homes in the district, with a positive impact on property values.