Community divided as Elkhart Schools' referendum vote nears

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ELKHART, Ind. - Elkhart Community Schools is asking residents to vote yes on a school funding referendum that could cost the average homeowner an extra $119 a year in taxes.

But what are voters saying ahead of the election this coming Tuesday?

It’s hard not to notice these green vote no and yellow vote yes signs around Elkhart, but to gauge where voters are at might be hard with neighbors on the same street disagreeing.

"Personally, I believe it will help bring the best incoming teachers that are out there to be had here in Elkhart," Kelly Brown who is a teacher with the district and proponent of the referendum said. “I have seen that the incoming teachers haven't been always flocking to Elkhart as they did in my early years, partially because of our struggle with being an urban district that has a lot of extra needs and the financial situation that the state has put statehouse has put us in. So this referendum, unfortunately, the way they set it up at the state level, does fall on our property owners."

"Just to be honest with you to this whole last year has been rough on everybody, not just the schools, but people in manufacturing, and all the businesses around there. That's a substantial raise of property taxes from the business owners," Bob Barnes, one opponent said.

The district is asking for $15.25 million to go into three areas. Teacher pay, out-of-pocket health insurance costs and transportation.

They held several meetings to educate the public but we wanted to hear from residents, not at those meetings. And found our way to Larry Kijak’s doorstep.

"Now I’m for it," Kijak said. "The rest of world it's already surpassed us. We need teachers and teachers are turned away because they can make more money on the outside. And they're not coming back. The kids are still losing. I mean, this is my belief, we need this referendum."

But at Kirk Elliott's house… It’s not about the money as much as where it is going.

Tana: The school's announced this referendum, what was the first thing that went through your head?

"They're trying it again," he said. "There's the money they're already getting. There's the state planning to give them more money. And then there's the money on the federal level that they're getting because of COVID and those issues related to that. So why isn't that enough? Why aren't they closing schools that aren't being used to 100%? You know, where's the plan with that? Just a lack of rather than trying to catch people off-cycle when voter turnout is going to be the lowest. And trying to sneak it through is how everybody feels, you know, do it on an election year, get out in front of everybody and answer some tough questions for a lot of people."

Transparency is a key issue for voters.

"If a school is asking the general public for increased funds, that may be opened up and honest and transparent with how they spend that money. It'd want them to be held accountable to it," Barnes said.

"Especially when, you know, we're watching new buildings going up on the Elkhart school campus. So it's hard to reconcile that, especially as property taxes have gone up anyway," Elliott said. "And it's a generic, you know, teachers are leaving well, okay, there's more to it than just pay, you know, are you doing what you can do to make them want to stay?”

According to Superintendent Steve Thalheimer Ph.D., the district is being as transparent as possible about where the money is going and why they need it.

"While I understand that this is an asking for some families coming out of the pandemic, and concerns that they have there, the timing may not be ideal, and we understand that but that transportation piece is so important," Thalheimer said. "Let me address the CARES act first.”

The school was awarded $11 million and recently an additional $26 million in CARES dollars but Thalheimer said that can’t be used.

"So the CARES act dollars are for specific purposes to help mitigate against COVID. And to help identify and address learning loss. So those dollars are coming for a specific purpose and for a short period of time," he said. “I can't use those to pay a third-grade teacher or to pay a high school chemistry teacher, because they're supplemental dollars."

As for the extra money awarded by the state towards K-12 education...

"There was a lot of hoopla made over all these dollars that were going to be coming to schools and that the $600 million that they were putting in that $600 million is going into pay off teacher retirement pension debt, not necessarily coming to us as school districts," he said.

He argues that they have tried to save money in other ways, but that the referendum is coming at a critical point.

"Because of property tax caps in our operations fund, we don't have the dollars they are to be able to do what we need to do," Thalheimer said. "So if people would just take the moment to really listen to the facts and listen to the story and get past the narrative, that we are wasting money and being irresponsible. When we look over the last decade prior to the pandemic, this district had cut $18 million in spending. And so it gets to the point where our employees have borne that. And now we just simply need the community's help."

So what might happen come Tuesday, when people hit the polls?

“I'm not sure I'm gonna vote on this. But it's an increase in property tax. So it needs to be taken seriously," Barnes said.

"Last time it was 60% against 40%. I know a lot of people are upset and upset because of the increase in property taxes in general because they're going up anyway," Elliott said. "so I would expect as fired up as I've seen, I'd expected to get defeated. Yeah, it's my opinion.”

"We've seen the legislature and the governor shuffle and change throughout the years taking more and more money away from public schools and giving to private," Brown said. “I've only seen Indiana go in the wrong direction. We really need the people here in Elkhart on the ground that love the schools that are in their whole backyard to step up and try to support us as well because that's the system the state has put us in.”

Again, the vote is May 4th and anyone in the Elkhart Schools district is eligible to vote.

If you’re wondering what this referendum is asking, check out my in-depth story posted Tuesday. But if you have any more questions, reach out to me at learningcurve@abc57.com and we can get those answers for you.

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