Muncie school referendum: Save the children by raising property taxes

Muncie voters decide future of education on Tuesday

By Rick Yencer

MUNCIE, INDIANA (NEWS) - Most Muncie voters won't decide the future public education on Tuesday, leaving a tax referendum for bus transportation up to parents, partisans and those employed and impacted by Muncie Community Schools.

 By Friday, only 400 people voted early on the referendum out of more than 55,000 eligible to vote. And voting on Tuesday will be done at a handful of precincts since local election officials decided to consolidate polls to save money.

 The issue of raising property taxes because Republican state lawmakers continue to cap taxes and impose choice for education, ended public education in some communities like Gary in favor of charter, parochial, and home schooling.

Muncie School Supt. Tim Heller said it was vital for people to stand up and help the school system overcome revenue shortfalls imposed by tax caps. And members of the Muncie Community School Board support raising taxes, saying the $77 million now spent on MCS is not enough. The financial crisis also is causing the schools to close Southside High School, leaving Central as the only high school.

 Even the non partisan Muncie-Delaware County League of Women Voters came out to support the children, insisting that the referendum was not a ploy for tax money by using student safety as an emotional issue. With the Legislature imposing more controls on school capital and transportation funds, MCS is left with only a fourth of its transportation budget.

 Bea Sousa, LWV spokesman, squared placed the blame on the state legislature where Republicans hold super majorities in the House and Senate. Lawmakers like former Rep. Bill Davis, R-Portland, who just took a job with the state, and Rep. Jack Lutz, R-Anderson, consistently voted for school choice and tax caps.

 And the Delaware County Democratic Party also put its organization and officeholders in front, saying safe transportation guaranteed public safety for students  That was a statement offered by Democratic county chairman Steve Stewart, who is also Muncie's police chief.

 Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, voted for the referendum, saying the Legislature continued to shift the burden of public education onto local taxpayers. While the state funds general operating and teachers pensions, capital and transportation funds are paid by local taxpayers. And the same caps put on local government apply to local schools.

 State Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, also Senate minority leader, has supported public education and voted against cutting funds to schools. That's just the opposition of Sen. Doug Eckerty, R-Yorktown, who supports school choice and was elected on a repeal property taxes platform.

 Delaware County Republican Party Chairman Will Statom has been silent on the referendum, mainly because conservative Republican leaning groups like the Tea Party and Citizens for Good Government are actively fighting the tax hike.

 Jim Arnold, who works at Ball State, and a member of both groups, talks about Muncie schools has the second highest poverty rate and most students on free or reduced lunches. And the school system also is second highest when it comes to losing tax revenue next to Gary that lost its public school.

 What bothers Tea Party and other repeal property tax supporters is that MCS has the fourth highest total cost per student at $17,109 and also had much more than the national average for administrators to students. The national trend is one administrator for every 761 students, and Muncie has one for every 176 students.

 Even school board member Tony Costello referred to Muncie's economic light in justifying closing a high school, saying the school system went from 17,000 students more than 30 years ago to 6,600, making a reference to the community being like bankrupt Detroit.

 And closing Southside and making it middle school could have a big impact on the referendum since many south Muncie parents support the bus referendum, and oppose the school closing.

 Chris Hiatt, a founder of the Good Government group, also pointed out how the school system squandered money spending too much to renovate schools now considered for closing, and even taking transportation funds to pay administrative expenses. 

 The state recently found the school system misspent transportation funds on administrative salaries. School officials argued the money went for transportation supervisors, but they stopped the practice.

 Hiatt also mentioned that Muncie can just look to Anderson that went to one high school, and closed the Wigwam gym a few years ago and now shows a $11 million surplus in its operating fund. That was while Muncie schools continued to go into debt to renovate schools, and declined to close schools or reduce spending..

 Muncie schools did close Garfield elementary, but it opened as a charter school this year, taking more than 150 students and the $1.2 million in state funding with it.

 Heller offered a prophecy the other night as he was moving the school board to decide to close Southside to save $1.7 million a year.

"We have to do something," said Heller. If we don't we have, we should all resign."

 That is one thing Muncie voters have done with the school board, and that has been to retire board members on every election in recent years. That leaves the school board with two retired teachers, Debbie Feick and Robert Warrner;  Costello, a retired college professor;; Michael Long, a minister and Beverly Kelley, also retired.

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