School corp. turning to taxpayers after explaining needs

Flint Springs Elementary School Principal Aimee Lunsford (standing at right) reads back questions she fielded from the public during a community forum on two proposed referendum questions brought by the Huntington County Community School Corporation on Wednesday, June 5, at Huntington North High School. The questions address project needs at the high school and teacher salaries.
Flint Springs Elementary School Principal Aimee Lunsford (standing at right) reads back questions she fielded from the public during a community forum on two proposed referendum questions brought by the Huntington County Community School Corporation on Wednesday, June 5, at Huntington North High School. The questions address project needs at the high school and teacher salaries. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

The Huntington County Community School Corporation has nowhere to turn to but the taxpayers of the county, after it presented two vital needs that could appear on the Nov. 5 municipal election ballot as referendum questions.

The task fell to newly-installed School Superintendent Chad Daugherty, as he led two community forum meetings on Wednesday, June 5, and Thursday, June 6, to lay out the needs addressing the high school’s aging building and a raise in teacher salaries.

Question 1
The first question, referred to as the “Project Referendum,” asks taxpayers whether they would support an increase in the property tax rate to fund a major building project at HNHS. The referendum question asks:

“Shall Huntington County Community School Corporation issue bonds or enter into a lease to finance the construction of the 2020 Safety, Security, Replacement, and Restoration Project, which includes the renovation of and improvements to Huntington North High School and other related campus improvements which is estimated to cost not more than $68,480,000 and is estimated to increase the property tax rate for debt service by a maximum of thirty-three cents ($0.33) per $100 of assessed valuation?”

Citing the current high school building’s 50-year history and repair problems, Daugherty called it a matter of academic needs and safety at HNHS.

“You’re talking about HVAC, you’re talking about the plumbing, you’re talking about the drainage, you’re talking about the roof – the current roof on this area is over 30 years old,” he told the approximately 150 people in attendance at the meeting on Wednesday, June 5.

Daugherty laid out issues with the roof, which is actually one roof built upon another in 1983 to fix structural damages to the original one built in 1969. Water seeps between the layers and finds its way into classrooms, as illustrated by a photo shown of a class in session while a tarp catches water dripping from the ceiling.

“We’re patching this roof constantly,” he explained. “McGuff Roofing comes here constantly trying to patch our roof. You don’t generally see this walking into Huntington North High School.”

In addition, the HVAC unit and air handler is 50 years old as well, and not operating to code standards, Daugherty said. In some classrooms there is no outside return air, meaning students do not get clean air into the room.

Pictures showed cracks in the building’s foundation and walls. Daugherty said underground, sewers and lines are often full of water and cause the sewer to back up. Some drains are completely blocked, he said, and some sinks in the science lab classroom are unusable.

Flooring is another concern, as well as replacing outdated career tech equipment.

“Some drill presses are pre-World War II,” Daugherty added.

The high school’s performing arts department is also in need of more space, as well as storage. In addition, other classrooms are hot, cramped and should be closer to 900 square feet, not 600 square feet, he said, and need permanent, soundproof walls. Asbestos in the current building is also a concern.

In addition, safety and security problems were addressed, Daugherty citing that there are problems with people who can come into the high school building without being properly checked in. Also, one single cafeteria should be built instead of the current two meal areas, with school resource officers watching over one room.

Another safety issue is support services staff – including guidance, main office, principal, dean of students and athletic director – should be located in one area apart from students and not scattered throughout the building as it is now, Daugherty said.

There are two options for solutions to the issues presented, Daugherty said. Option A is to put the main entrance to the high school where Door No. 28 now is, and move all support staff there. A new performing arts wing, career tech labs (CTE) and art classes would also be built to the west. Classrooms would be renovated in several areas.

Daugherty said this option, a 60-month, $97 million project, would require students to be displaced – perhaps put into portable classrooms – while renovations were going on.

However, a new option, Option B, was presented to HCCSC that is cheaper – $87 million total cost – would take less time at 30 months for brand-new construction and would not require students to be displaced while construction takes place.

The new build would be a two-story structure with ample space for performing arts, CTE and art classes and connect to the second level of Huntington North Arena. Additional new areas would be built for support staff, with the new main entrance still located at Door No. 28.

“That part of the building which has some asbestos and all kinds of issues, will be torn down,” Daugherty said. “You’re looking at $20 million cheaper to build new.”

Assistant Superintendent for Business and Classified Staff Scott Bumgardner said replacing the air handler alone could save the school corporation roughly $85,000 per year with the increased efficiency of the new unit.

The school corporation already has $19 million left over from the Roanoke Elementary School build project that it can add to fund the project, Daugherty said. That means the district is asking for $68 million from raising the property tax levy.

The gymnasium, auditorium and fieldhouse would stay as-is and not be affected by the project.

Option B is the one that Daugherty will recommend to the board of school trustees when they convene to consider the referendum items.

Question 2
The second referendum question, called the “Operating Referendum,” proposes $1 million per year over an eight-year period to fund salaries and benefits of the district’s teaching staff. The question reads:

“For the eight (8) calendar years immediately following the holding of the referendum, shall the Huntington County Community School Corporation impose a property tax rate that does not exceed six cents ($0.06) on each one hundred dollars ($100) of assessed valuation and that is in addition to all other taxes imposed by the school corporation for the purpose of funding academic and educationally-related programs, managing class sizes, school safety initiatives and attracting and retaining teachers?”

Currently, teachers’ starting salaries at HCCSC is $34,500, Bumgardner said.
“Huntington Community Schools is ranked second-lowest in starting salaries in any school district in any surrounding county in basically Northeast Indiana,” he added. “Right now we are really struggling with retaining teachers. We are struggling with retaining staff. This past year we gave some staff members a $1 raise, and that was just to give them $10 an hour, because we were losing staff that is here working with kids that were going to McDonald’s and getting a raise.

“We feel compelled that this is an important item, and we’re going to propose that the majority of that million dollars a year be put directly into staff – both certified and classified – wages and benefits.”

Another portion of the money will be used to pay for safety and security, including hiring a safety and security specialist and an additional school resource officer.

Tax impact
In terms of what it will cost individual taxpayers for approving the Project Referendum, Bumgardner used a home valued at $100,000 as an example. At 33 cents tax rate on net assessed value, he calculated the impact to be an additional 110.07 per year, or $9.17 per month.

Commercial property would see an increase of $338.10 per year per $100,000 of assessed value, while farmland taxes would increase $5.27 per year based on $1,560 per acre.

For the Operating Referendum, Bumgardner said homeowners would see an annual increase of $19.53 in their taxes, or $1.63 per month.
Commercial property would see an increase of $60 per year per $100,000 of gross assessed value, while farmland taxes would increase 94 cents per year based on $1,560 per acre.

“We feel like this is such a need. We don’t want to go through this process any more than you want to pay the taxes on this, but the thing is, we think it’s a need,” Bumgardner said. “We think that it’s an investment into our community, and if we look at it as a cost, obviously it doesn’t make sense for us. But if we look at it as an investment, I think it makes more sense for our community. And I think we can justify everything we’re asking for. … We’ve just come to the point where we can’t kick this can down the road any longer, and we have to address these deficiencies in our facilities.”

Questions
Following the district’s presentation, those in the audience broke up into table discussion groups by each HCCSC school, led by school personnel who fielded questions and concerns individually. They then read them out loud to the board. Answering a few questions immediately, Daugherty promised they would all be addressed, with email communications sent to those who wrote their email addresses down prior to the start of the meetings.

Some of the questions, comments and concerns on the minds of those who attended the meeting included:

“What are the differences in the square footage between the two options?”

“Don’t take shortcuts; make sure you do a good investment on those things.”

“How can the music rooms be too small compared to what was done in the past?”

“What safety features would be included in the two options?”

“What will be done with the Learning Center across the street?”

“How do enrollments play into this?”

“How is this cafeteria too small now compared to back then?”

“When is the tax going to go away?”

“Why are we doing this in a year when there are no general elections?”

“We’re not for either referendum. We don’t always have money. Sometimes we have to do without certain items.”

“If the referendum is not passed, what will we do?”

“How did we get to this point to begin with, where we are proposing a referendum?”

“There wasn’t mention of athletic facilities. What does that look like?”

“The Operating Referendum is long overdue.”

“Want more details on the physical plans. Will it be eco-friendly? Solar? What are the new construction materials going to look like as well as a new plumbing format so we don’t have the same situation we’re in right now?”

“Assuming the proposed questions pass in November, when will both projects start and when will taxes increase?”

“What is being done with the ‘new build’ (Option B) to accommodate New Tech?”

“If we need to fix things, let’s fix it all; don’t come back in 10 years with repair requests.”

Timetable
The school board meets next tonight, Monday, June 10, in a regularly-scheduled meeting at 7 p.m. at Salamonie Elementary School, 1063E-900S, Warren. While the referendum item is not officially listed on the agenda, there may be some members of the public who will address the board on the issue during the public comments portion of the program. No action is expected at that meeting.

The timetable calls for a preliminary determination (1028) hearing to be held on June 19, and brought to the board for a vote on June 20. If the Project Referendum is placed on the Nov. 5 ballot and is passed, construction could begin nearly immediately, Bumgardner says.

In the meantime, the HCCSC School Board welcomes questions and comments from the public. School board members can be reached through the HCCSC website at www.hccsc.k12.in.us/departments/school_board.