On Tuesday, Nov. 2, a majority of Zionsville voters said no to a tax levy referendum, proposed by the Zionsville Community School Board.
The possibility of a referendum was first brought to the table by Superintendent Scott Robison in December 2009, after what he called a “perfect storm” of events established a need for alternative revenue.
On Dec. 14, 2009, at the Zionsville Community School Board meeting, Robison asked the board for permission to allocate up to $10,000 to start researching the possibility of a tax levy referendum. The board voted 3-2 in favor of researching the possible necessity of a referendum.
The two not in favor of researching a referendum were boardmembers Chip Cravens and Jim Longest.
“I’m all for finding other revenue sources,” Cravens said. “But I won’t be in favor (of a referendum) now or after the research is done.”
The suggested amount of tax increase for the referendum was 29.5 cents on every $100 of a property’s assessed net value. According to Robison, this would have equaled approximately $480 in additional taxes on a $300,000 home, an additional $5.8 million for the school per year. The referendum proposal also stated that the tax increase would have a potential lifespan of seven years.
In the Oct. 7 public question and answer session organized by the Greater Zionsville Chamber of Commerce, Cravens, no longer a boardmember, said that ZCS Chief Financial Officer, Mike Shafer, and Robison are capable of getting creative even when funds are short.
“If in a corner, they will be innovative to keep the school system at a high level,” Cravens said. “If they have more money, they won’t have to be inventive.”
The need to seek additional funds has long been a primary concern for the Zionsville Community School Board. After a 2008 state property tax reform took effect in 2010 (a reform which capped home, rental and commercial property taxes), the 2010-11 school budget was affected. There were not enough funds allocated for capital projects, transportation and debt services. According to a statement from Zionsville Community Schools in May, that has meant less money for teachers, supplies and programs.
“The only way to drive property taxes to equal the massive losses from the state is by a referendum,” Robison said in an article published Sep. 1.
Since 2006, ZCS has cut 40 percent of central administrative staff, 40 instructional assistants, 14 teachers through attrition, and an additional cut of $2.54 million in travel budgets, lighting in hallways and administrative benefits such as phones and color printing, Robison said in an article published Oct. 20.
The school has also cut summer school course offerings, with the exception of federally mandated ones for special education students, and reduced the Zionsville Education Association salary benefits.
With a growing number of students — enrollment has grown by 900 students since 2006 with an additional 125 expected next year — and fewer teachers, Robison said that the school board must protect the school’s core mission, which he said is the student-teacher connection.
“Save programs and save people with a referendum,” Robison said before the vote.
Two groups formed in light of the referendum proposal; a political action committee in favor of the referendum, called ZCS-Yes and a non-profit, called the Zionsville Taxpayers for Responsible Education.
After the Nov. 2 election, votes were counted, and the referendum failed by approximately 2,000 votes. According to ZTRE, $41 million will remain in the taxpayers pockets.
In an article published Nov. 3, Wendy Brant, a member of ZTRE, said, “This was an amazing effort by the whole community who supported excellence in education, but not without fiscal restraint. We have to realize the school needs to tighten its belt but not get rid of the teachers or the programs that make the educational difference. ZTRE will continue to try and work with the school and go through budgetary processes in order to make our school system integrate more harmoniously with the community.”
ZTRE representative and the Indiana Business Journal Corp. Chief Financial Officer, Jeff Basch, said he is happy “a referendum that was not necessary for the schools” did not pass.