The People of Elkhart Spoke… and They Said No

Why the Elkhart Community Schools tax referendum received a solid ‘no’ from the community

The+front+of+the+J.C.+Rice+Educational+Services+Center%2C+also+known+as+the+Administration+Building%2C+where+the+Board+of+School+Trustees+meet.

Xavier Sullivan

The front of the J.C. Rice Educational Services Center, also known as the Administration Building, where the Board of School Trustees meet.

Xavier Sullivan, Staff Writer

On 7 May, 2019, the primary election was held. On the ballot this year, in Elkhart County, was a referendum for Elkhart Community Schools, in an attempt to seek 15.7 million dollars in additional funding. This referendum was presented to the public as a means of being able to pay teachers more money, as this has been an issue in recent years. However, there are some issues here.

First, a little background information. The referendum would be a tax hike to 44.85% from citizens of Elkhart County. The argument is that big numbers seem scary, but that it is only $12.24 per household. The word in the community was that the additional funding would allow teachers to be paid more.

Chart indicating tax changes that would be imposed with the referendum. Taken from http://elkhart.k12.in.us/home/administration/referendum-2019/

To the point, Elkhart Community Schools (ECS) webpage that details why they feel the referendum was necessary doesn’t say that the teachers will get a raise at all. It mentions a few things that would indicate as such, but does not actually say it. First, they address the issue of losing teachers and staff, “Elkhart Community Schools is losing teachers, as well as support staff, to neighboring districts. Neighboring districts have taken steps to increase staff pay and benefits through referenda, supported by their taxpayers … To stay competitive and retain excellent, effective staff, to keep class sizes down, and to continue offering a rich and varied education for Elkhart students, Elkhart Community Schools must do the same.”

But they do not say anything to the effect of ‘We will pay our teachers more’ or ‘Our teachers will get a pay raise’. Continuing on, again, they imply a pay raise, but do not say that is where the money will go to. “The proposed referendum will specifically address funding for academic and educationally related programs, managing class sizes, school safety initiatives, and attracting and retaining teachers.” The referendum will address funding for academic and educationally related programs, NOT ‘…will go to funding…’, meaning that some funding may go elsewhere, instead. The merger, perhaps?

Despite, the webpage saying that the money will not go to the merger of the two high schools, that doesn’t necessarily mean the merger won’t receive additional funding. Look at it this way: the merger would be able to receive more funding from having funds from other places diverted to the merger, and then replace those funds with the new money from the referendum. It wouldn’t be the first time Elkhart Community Schools cheated the people it speaks to.

For example, the placebo vote on the new Elkhart High School mascot. I always had my suspicion that the vote was just to give students the illusion of the sense of choosing the future of their high school; however, an article I came across while conducting research for this article by the Ink Free News confirmed this. The article, describing the new mascot and high school name said that, “More than 800 naming suggestions were given, which were narrowed down to a final five from which the school board chose Elkhart High School”. Did you see that? Read closely,  “to a final five from which the school board chose” (which, even if it is a typo, the school board ultimately chose to take the ‘mangy’ out of ‘mangy lions’, which we students “chose” in the “vote” that we got to “pick” from, because the word ‘mangy’ is too offensive for snowflakes, I guess).

That’s another thing, too. The high school merger, which the populous of the City of Elkhart, nor the students who will be attending the school had a choice about, was not voted upon. There was no referendum. The community had no say. The students who attend these schools had no say. The school board just decided that was the way it was going to be by way of their own vote. They agreed to follow a strategic five-year plan to combine the two high schools into one. However, I hypothesize that if this decision was held to a public referendum, the people would have said ‘no’. And the reason is because it would seem that the people don’t trust the school board.

Back to the Referendum 2019 webpage, Elkhart Community Schools outlines how little they pay their teachers.

Screenshot of the ECS Referendum 2019 webpage detailing teacher pay. Taken from http://elkhart.k12.in.us/home/administration/referendum-2019/

You will see that the starting yearly pay for a teacher at ECS is near the bottom of the chart at a measly $36,350, whereas Penn-Harris Madison is at the top of the charts at $40,350. The face-value logic is then that the referendum would give more money to the teachers salary, but here’s the kicker: Elkhart Community Schools receives more revenue per student than Penn-Harris Madison. The latter receives $12,470 in government funding per student, but ECS receives $13,721. ECS receives $1,251 more than Penn-Harris Madison, the top paying school in the area, yet ECS wants more money to better compensate teachers? The extra $1,251 per student multiplied by all of Elkhart Community Schools’ 13,952 students comes out to be $17,453,952. That $17.45 million evenly divided amongst all 747 teachers comes out to be $23,365.40 of additional money per teacher. There is more than enough money there to better pay the teachers, even if only a little bit. So that begs the question, where is the money going? 

Seeing as how the high school merger involves the renovations of the high schools, and plenty of additional construction so that a school built in 1972 for a 1972 student population can handle a 2021 size population in 2021. Elkhart Community Schools isn’t spending money on new textbooks, though. The textbooks in the German classes are from 2004. I have been told by plenty of teachers that the original plan was to update the textbooks every five years. I’m sure that’s where the absurd book fees that ECS charges their students every year goes to, right? Or was it the six million dollars that Elkhart Community Schools spent on iPads that keeps us having sixteen year old textbooks that are half falling apart, held together by scotch tape and the lack of funding (and will soon be older than some incoming freshman)?

Elkhart Community Schools receives more money per student than Penn-Harris Madison, but is asking for more money because they can’t pay their teachers while simultaneously spending millions on a merger that’s supposed to save money? Makes a whole lot of sense, right?

It doesn’t help that the Indiana Department of Education cut $2.3 million in funding from Elkhart Community Schools during the economic recession in 2009. They said the money would be returned, but over a decade later, it still hasn’t been. THAT’S where we should ask for money from. Not additional tax dollars from the people, but from the state who took away money from not just ECS, but districts statewide, even though state taxes have only gone up in recent years. We shouldn’t have to pay more taxes than we already do.

There are several red flags here. Indiana state taxes have gone up, yet school funding has gone down. What money Elkhart Community Schools does have is being wasted away on a backwards plan to save money in the long run, while depleting funds now. And who gets the brunt of it? The teachers that educate the future of our society. Even though neighboring school districts that receive even less money from the government, they pay their teachers more.

This is not a personal attack on the Board of School Trustees, or Elkhart Community Schools, but rather a whistleblowing of the issues surrounding the referendum, and why the people said no. To call a 63% a landslide would be a bit of a stretch, but it still says something. It says that the people have spoken, and the people said no. And that ‘no’ isn’t without reason.

Sources:  Elkhart Community Schools Board of School Trustees and website, Elkhart County Clerk, the Ink Free News, the National Center for Educational StatisticsNWI NewsWNDU Newsand WSBT News

The views in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of the GENESIS staff. Reach Xavier Sullivan at [email protected]