By Sam Elliott
The only item on the Nov. 3 ballot in Zionsville will help determine the financial future of Zionsville Community Schools.
The district’s tax referendum passed in 2012 is expiring at the end of the calendar year. Without a renewal in November, ZCS will be forced to reinstate the cuts in place from 2010-12 — including the loss of as many as 120 employees with class sizes ballooning to 40 or more students.
Those 2010 cuts were the result of changes in the state’s school funding formula, which dropped ZCS to the unwanted distinction of being the lowest-funded school district in Indiana.
“They changed the school funding formula and unfortunately during that change communities like Zionsville were harmed to the point of, if you look at what we get from the state, we’re about $710 less per student than the average school district,” said Mike Copher, a Zionsville parent of three students in the district and an organizer with the Zionsville Yes campaign.
“This problem is not of our own making,” he added. “It was given to us by the state. If you look at 2006, 2007 and earlier, the district was probably about as well funded as any in the state, and those dollars were taken away.”
The district has been proactive in working with the state legislature to create a new funding formula to bring dollars back to ZCS, but it’s a process district officials say will take time. They’re hopeful the proposed referendum’s six-year lifespan will provide stability to ZCS and give time for the district to continue working for more funding.
“We’ve sort of loosened the lid on the jar of that, so to speak, with the legislature,” ZSC Supt. Dr. Scott Robison said. “They’ve recognized and readily admitted that it was a broken funding formula. They did some things to kind of move things in the right direction, but our lowest-funded status is really a status that does not allow us to have an excellent school district with the finding provided. It’s clear that we’ve done many things to live within our means. We just don’t have enough means to provide an excellent school experience for young people based on the state funding.”
The district’s successful 2012 referendum allowed for teaching positions and programs lost to be restored, bringing class sizes back down to optimal levels.
“Every dollar that was raised through the referendum has gone to fund teachers. I think it’s 79 teaching positions,” said Mary Reid, a parent of three ZCS students and an organizer with the Zionsville Yes campaign. “This money wasn’t put into a new building or anything. It’s stated very clearly every dollar goes to funding teaching positions, and that’s exactly what will happen.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize that the current referendum actually expires,” she added. “This isn’t a new one (in addition to the current one), and we still need it. We have to make sure people know it expires and there’s no do-over. When that’s gone, if we don’t replace it with this, we’re back in a world of hurt.”
The referendum maintains the current rate — a maximum of 24 cents per $100 of net-assessed value — and could be decreased but never increased depending on state funding in the next six years.
Should the referendum fail, effects will be felt before next fall’s school year begins.
“We’re already the leanest in most categories that I know of for a 6,500-student district,” Robison said. “We simply need to make sure we don’t go back to the ugliness of 2011. It would become a numbers game. What would occur [if the referendum fails]is the loss of programs … Not only would those not be restored, but we would see losses — and obviously this would be pending board decision — but the board would have to make cuts of about 120 staff. That would be a combination of administrators, support staff and teachers.”
The Zionsville Town Council unanimously passed a resolution at its most recent meeting in support of the school district’s referendum, noting that the success level of ZCS can affect even those without children in the district by affecting property values.
“If communities around us begin to feel Zionsville’s not supporting their school district, our home values are going to go down,” Copher said. “If you’re an empty-nester, you don’t want to have that housing value going down at the time you need it to be the most valuable.”
“If you look at the studies about housing values and community safety, those are also strongly correlated with excellent schools, and we don’t want that to backslide into the community,” Robison added. “It is imperative that people vote yes and especially folks who have invested in this community and have high hopes for their children in life.”
Unlike 2012, opponents have not organized to urge people to vote against the referendum this time around. At that time, a group called Zionsville Taxpayers for Responsible Education worked to oppose the district’s referendum. The group’s website is no longer operational and messages left at the group’s Facebook page — inactive since 2012 — went unanswered.
BY THE NUMBERS
6 – Years the ballot referendum would be in effect if approved
24.44 – Referendum tax rate in cents per $100 of net assessed value
35 – Approximate tax increase in dollars on a $350,000 home if referendum passes
58 – Percent of voters who cast ballots in favor of the 2012 ZCS referendum
120 – Number of teaching positions and support staff that could be cut if referendum fails
710 – Dollar amount ZCS receives less per student than state average