By SHERRY VAN ARSDALL firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — GOSHEN — Some local residents have wondered just how Goshen Community Schools can afford to pursue a $17.15 million construction project during such lean economic times. After all, school officials had to make significant reductions in student transportation services this year, forcing more students to have to walk or take alternative transportation to school.
While voters within the school corporation boundaries will determine the fate of the construction project during a special referendum Tuesday, its success or failure will have no bearing on the corporation’s transportation and capital projects fund shortfalls, according to school officials.
How can that be?
“If the referendum passes, the cost of the project will be above the tax caps, therefore, it will not impact the budgets,” said GCS Business Manager Jerry Hawkins. “When (properties) hit the 1 percent tax cap, we lose the money because of the property tax cap.”
Because of the capping of state property taxes, which is where most funding for public schools comes from, the GCS school board had to make tough choices in transportation for 2013-2014.
With state rules mandating what money in the corporation’s budget can be spent where, coupled with unfunded mandates by the state laws, the transportation shortfall cannot be made up by other funds, Hawkins said.
“If we felt like the transportation shortfall was severe enough, we could ask for a referendum, and there are school corporations doing that,” Hawkins said. “A transportation referendum is an option, but we have chosen to enforce the one-mile walk zone along with some other changes, like combining routes, so we can weather the storm and not ask for a transportation referendum and be fiscally responsible.”
The transportation shortfall has been a more recent issue and the need for a new pool and school renovations project has been planned by the school district since 2007, Hawkins said.
“This has been addressed for the last five years and had a higher priority,” he said. “It is needed in the corporation and we told the community we were going to do this.”
One Goshen voter, Mildred Farrier, said she would rather pay for the safety of students and opposes the referendum.
“I think the focus should be safety and academics,” Farrier said. “If we cannot pay for transportation we should not pay for a new pool. I think there should have been more information on the transportation issues first. We need to take care of the children first.”
The one-mile walk zone is not new, Hawkins added.
“We didn’t make changes any more than was decided five or six years ago and that was a mile,” Hawkins said. “We are simply enforcing them. We get criticism. We have worked really hard to ensure the safety of our students and some have felt we aren’t doing enough. We’ve had some traffic issues but nothing severe and we are experiencing some of the savings that we hoped for.”
He said school officials are trying to find balance in the middle.
“We spend money within the rules and laws that we are given in transportation,” Hawkins said. “The voters have voted to put tax caps in the state constitution.”
Elkhart County has been impacted by tax caps more severely than most other counties in the state, he added.
“We have been severely impacted and our projection for 2014 is that we will lose 47 percent of transportation, 47 percent of Capital Project Funds and 47 percent of bus replacement,” Hawkins said. “That’s a significant impact that we have to acknowledge as well as the city and other entities affected by tax caps.”
Who can vote? The special election will be limited to registered voters of precincts Elkhart 1 through Elkhart 21, comprising all of the Goshen Community School District. All other voters in Elkhart County are not eligible. Polls will open at 6 a.m. Nov. 5 and close at 6 p.m. Anyone with questions about eligibility are asked to contact the Clerk's Office at 535-6469 or Voter Registration at 535-6775. Early voting Absentee/early voting in person began at 8 a.m. Oct. 8 and will end Monday at noon. Voters can cast their ballot at the Elkhart County Administration Building, 117 N. Second St., Room 108, Goshen. The schedule of remaining available voting days and times is as follows: • Today from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. • Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. • Monday from 8 a.m. to noon. The absentee voter board will be open through the lunch hour.