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Washington Township seeks largest school construction referendum in Indiana history

Kristin Poindexter helps her kindergarten students assemble butterfly bracelets in her science class at Spring Mill Elementary School in Washington Township.
Kristin Poindexter helps her kindergarten students assemble butterfly bracelets in her science class at Spring Mill Elementary School in Washington Township.
Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat

Four years after passing sizable tax measures, Washington Township is asking voters to approve the largest school construction referendum in state history.

The $285 million request — paired with an eight-year, $128 million operating referendum — will appear on Tuesday’s ballot at a time of great economic and educational uncertainty.

With the extra capital funds, the Indianapolis district hopes to renovate aging buildings, finish projects where construction costs have run higher than anticipated, and build a new $72 million middle school. An increase in operating funds would give teachers raises and pay for new positions, including teachers, police officers, and bus drivers.

“We recognize that it is a big ask of the community,” said school board president John Fencl. “However, we’re looking at this as a 20- to 30-year investment, and so we think it’s prudent to go ahead and maintain our buildings for the next life cycle, even if it is a large request.”

But some opponents say the district’s requests are “obscene,” “tone deaf,” and “indefensible.” They take issue with the district seeking to increase property taxes again after voters approved two school referendums in 2016, and at a time when residents are bracing for an economic downturn as unemployment hits record highs.

“It’s just indefensible,” said Al Hubbard, an Indianapolis businessman and philanthropist. “I just feel like they’re trying to take advantage of the taxpayers. It’s going to make Washington Township a much less attractive place for homes.”

Washington Township voters have approved three school referendums since 2010, each by a healthy 70-30 margin. But nobody knows how the coronavirus outbreak will affect turnout or sentiment in this year’s primary election, which the state pushed back a month from its usual early May timing.

Problems with mail-in voting could also dramatically affect election results. With local and state leaders encouraging voting by mail, more than 123,000 Marion County residents requested absentee ballots, according to the clerk’s office. That’s 20 times as many as in the 2016 primary.

But postal service delays have left many people waiting for their ballots to arrive and could mean thousands of ballots might not be received by the election board in time to be counted, Marion County Clerk Myla Eldridge warned the state this week.

With Indiana schools mostly funded through the state, and property taxes capped, districts are increasingly asking residents for more money to pay teachers and renovate buildings. This is particularly the case in Indianapolis and for other urban districts.

But voters aren’t always willing to raise their own taxes, and sometimes districts ask for too much. Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, met enormous pushback in 2018 to what was initially a nearly $1 billion ask for two referendums. District officials had to twice scale down and postpone their requests to ultimately win both referendums, totaling $272 million in additional funding.

In Washington Township, a 11,000-student district where about 60% qualify for free or reduced-price meals based on their families’ incomes, one expert said the high dollar amount of the referendums doesn’t necessarily affect taxpayers as dramatically.

That’s because Washington Township is a “property-wealthy” district, said Steve Klink, a school referendum consultant in Indiana. The district currently has a low school tax rate compared to the state average, he pointed out. But with a lot of property value, it can collect more money with a lower rate than some places with higher tax rates but less property value.

“They get more bang for their buck,” Klink said. “The schools are not a huge tax burden on the property taxpayers in Washington Township, and yet they’ve been able to increase their levy substantially over the last four years.”

The two proposed school referendums would increase the tax rate by up to about 45 cents per $100 of assessed value. For the median home value in the district of $180,500, property taxes would increase by $32.41 per month, according to the district calculator, or about $390 per year.

In 2016, Washington Township’s $185 million construction referendum was the second-largest successful effort of its kind in Indiana. The district built two new elementary schools that opened last summer to reduce overcrowding. In other buildings, the district improved safety features and addressed immediate needs such as leaking roofs.

“I think everybody knew that the 2016 referendum was not going to fix everything,” Fencl said. “I think it was a great step forward, and we thought it was a fair ask of the community at the time.”

In a booming economy, construction costs ran higher than anticipated, the district said, beyond its accounting for inflation. That’s partly why the district is putting forward another referendum, which would cover $47 million in projects that couldn’t be completed.

The district also wants to build a new Northview Middle School at 91st Street and College Avenue, a project that officials estimate will cost $72 million, including site development, construction, and furniture. The old middle school building will be converted into an operations center that would provide a hub for school buses.

Officials didn’t want to postpone the referendums after the pandemic because it would delay the potential for any work for several years, Fencl said.

The new operating referendum would raise $16 million per year for eight years, replacing the one passed in 2016 while adding funding such as $1.5 million annually for teacher raises. Additional operational funds could be particularly critical if the state has to reduce school funding to tighten upcoming budgets amid plummeting revenues.

Opponents say that while they want to support education and teachers, the two asks are simply too high.

“The focus needs to be on dramatically improving teaching and retaining great teachers,” Hubbard said. “This is not what this is about. This is about buildings and facilities.”

Hubbard and his business partner Devin Anderson, both Washington Township residents, are running social media ads opposing the referendums. They declined to disclose how much they are spending.

Anderson questioned why the district was seeking four referendums in four years, which he said suggests “mismanagement, and frankly somewhere between arrogance and tone deafness on the amount. For the school district to think that half a billion is OK in tax increases is alarming.”

Another opponent, longtime resident Penny Bigelow, said she felt like the district asked for too much money in 2016, and the even bigger requests this year were “absolutely obscene.” She worries homeowners, particularly those on fixed incomes, will leave Washington Township because of increasing taxes.

“What we want is to defeat this referendum, and then work with the MSD of Washington Township in order to have better use of existing monies for the classroom,” Bigelow said. “We want to see the teachers get more money, we want to see the teachers get more aid, we want whatever is needed in the classroom to be done first.”

Bigelow said she has given out 200 lawn signs opposing the referendum. She said she is in the process of forming a political action committee and declined to say how much her group has raised or spent.

On the other side of the issue, the “Vote Yes” political action committee supporting the referendums has raised more than $27,000 with significant support from the political arm of the state teachers union, according to a May 15 campaign finance filing. The group has spent nearly $20,000 on expenses such as direct mail and text message campaigns and video production.

“Public schools have had the short end of the stick of funding. When you’re on fixed revenues but variable expenses, you’re screwed,” said committee chair T. Ray Phillips, whose children attend district schools. “If I truly believe I live in a great neighborhood, and that neighborhood is a direct function of the schools that attract people to it, this is part of what I need to do.”

Washington Township resident Nichole Heilbron, whose son attends one of the new elementary schools, voted in support of both referendums, because she believes it’s a small price to pay when a quality public education can lead to successes later in life. “I want that for my own child, but I want that for all the other children, too.”

“I don’t want to pay more money in taxes either, but I’m never going to argue with paying more money for education for our kids,” Heilbron said. “I feel like that’s an investment in our future.”

If the referendums don’t pass, Fencl said the district will likely have to come back to voters later for more funds.

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