Proposed tax hike to fund Elkhart school transportation

ELKHART Elkhart's schools superintendent is looking for ways to keep kids out of the cold.

Superintendent Rob Haworth asked the Elkhart Community School's board of trustees to consider a referendum to fund transportation costs, as well as safety upgrades to school buildings.

The referendum would also fund maintenance and upgrades to the district’s two pools.

The district made drastic changes to their schedules last year in order to consolidate bus routes and cut costs, but administrators said they're upwards of one million dollars short each year.

In 2009 ECS cut down the number of buses in operation from 120 to 99--saving about $400-600,000 a year. The district attempt to further reduce that number to 90 buses this past year, but decided it already eliminated enough services.

Superintendent Haworth said ECS has made "great strides" trying to stay within its transportation budget: adjusting length of school days, instituting walk zones for elementary students living within a one mile radius of school and secondary school students within a two mile radius, as well as eliminating school-funded field trips.

"There has not been an event that has happened in 2013," Haworth explained the proposed referendum, "but the results of year after year of seeing increased shortfalls."

According to Doug Hasler, director of support services for the school corporation, a $2 million shortfall is anticipated for the 2013-2014 school year thanks to something called a "circuit breaker."

Indiana has a tax cap, or "circuit breaker," which protects certain property owners by limiting the amount of taxes they pay. For those homeowners, it's no more than one-percent of the assessed valuation of their homes.

Fewer taxes being paid translates to less money that can be distributed across the district.

"The need we have is to replace those dollars we're losing because we can't continue to maintain our level of services with reduced funding," said Hasler.

Why now?

Hasler said the overal debt structure is declining, meaning fewer debt obligations on the books for the foreseeable future. As ECS eliminates some of its financial burdens, Hasler said a modest tax increase for one to two years could help cover transportation and capital gains projects.

The exact increase in property taxes has not been released just yet, however, Hasler said the necessary improvements to school safety, capital projects and transportation will justify the increases.

Tuesday morning the school board approved a Jan. 6 public hearing on the referendum. The decision for which was not made by the superintendent alone--Haworth has met with a focus group of 45 community members since October to consider the improvements and possible projects to be worked on.

Other potential projects include repairing several of the schools roofs, giving a makeover to Elkhart Memorial High School's pool, and improving school safety.

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