Zionsville Community Schools considering referendum after finding little relief in new state funding formula


By Ann Marie Shambaugh

Zionsville Community Schools will drop to the lowest funded district in the state for at least the next two school years thanks to the biennial budget bill signed by Gov. Mike Pence on May 7.

While that doesn’t sound like good news for the district that led the charge for state school funding reform, ZCS officials told the school board May 11 that they consider the new formula a step in the right direction. Even if it’s a step that does little to solve the district’s funding shortfalls in the short term.

“It does give us hope our message is starting to get heard,” said Mike Shafer, ZCS chief financial officer. “We’re staring to get some traction. When we go back to future sessions we hope to see a continuation.”

By 2017, Shafer pointed out that ZCS will receive about $193 more per pupil than the current budget allows, but it will still fall short of the state average by nearly $745 per pupil. The district will be receiving $18 less per pupil than it did in 2012, even as the student population continues to grow.

Adding to the funding crisis, ZCS is also facing the expiration of a referendum passed in 2012 at the end of the calendar year. If the referendum tax rate – which voters approved at a maximum of about 24 cents – is allowed to expire, ZCS will be forced to operate at lower levels of per pupil funding than ever before, officials said.

Superintendent Scott Robison reminded the school board of the many cuts that took place in 2011, including elementary physical education, the International Baccalaureate program, staff and teacher layoffs and more. The district also began charging fees for athletics and clubs, froze wages and reduced the kindergarten day from six to five hours.

Even with the referendum, many of these cuts still remain in place. If it expires, those cuts will have to go deeper, Robison said. Although he didn’t cite specifics, he said that instructional programs and some services would be eliminated, student opportunities would be limited and class sizes would grow at all grade levels.

After delivering the bad news, Shafer and Robison presented three possible referendum scenarios that ranged from basically maintaining the status quo to adding back many of the cut programs and positions and adding new ones – all without raising the current tax rate.

Thanks to debt refinancing in 2014, ZCS saved $13.1 million dollars, which lowered the tax rate by 22.5 cents. The proposed referendum scenarios range from maintaining the 2012 referendum rate to increasing it by up to 9.62 cents. With the debt refinancing tax rate cut, however, taxpayers could still expect to have a lower overall ZCS tax rate.

The school board is expected to vote on whether or not to place a referendum on the November 2015 ballot at its June meeting.

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