A heated contest to replace Mayor Brooks Fetter commands voters' attention in Huntington, but support for an unusual double school referendum makes it imperative for all Huntington County voters to cast ballots this fall, not just those who live in the city.
The countywide district will have two questions on the ballot. One asks for an increase in its debt service property tax rate to a maximum of 33.8 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to support a $68.5 million renovation of Huntington North High School. The second allows for a property tax rate increase of a maximum 6 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to support academic programs, manage class sizes, and attract and retain teachers. Both votes are critical for the school district's viability.
Consolidation in 1969 brought two high schools together into a single school for the entire county: Huntington North High School. A gym and auditorium were built in 1975. A science wing was added to the school in 1986 – still referred to as the “new” science wing. A fieldhouse was added in 2003.
“You're looking at a building that is over 50 years old now,” said Superintendent Charles Daugherty. “It's the original (heating and ventilation system), and that's where you see we're really talking about health and safety.”
In addition to air-quality issues, portions of the school's roof are beyond repair, with multiple leaks in classrooms and hallways. The main entrance poses security risks and the open-concept design – popular when it was built in 1969 – results in classrooms that no longer meet size and safety requirements. A blocked sewage system requires repairs at levels so deep that the structural integrity of the building would be compromised.
On the academic side, Huntington North needs improved classrooms for programs that feed into the district's Learning Center for career and technical education. Performing arts facilities are undersized and lack proper acoustics. The cafeteria, divided between two spaces, creates security and supervisory problems.
The construction proposal is pared down from an earlier $98 million plan. It calls for demolishing the oldest, most-obsolete portions of the building and adding new classroom space within the school's existing footprint. It addresses Huntington North's most serious needs and creates operating efficiencies.
Some residents have questioned whether a second high school should be built, but current district enrollment of 4,999 and projected enrollment don't justify the investment required. The high school has 1,477 students this year.
“We feel we can't kick the can down the road any farther,” Daugherty said. “Construction costs have gone up 4.5% in each of the past five years.”
Likewise, the school district needs additional operating revenue to address faculty and staff salaries. Its starting teacher salary is the second-lowest among neighboring districts, at $34,500 a year. If approved, the operating referendum would raise an additional $1 million a year for eight years.
“We're having a terrible time with teacher retention, as well as with attracting families to our district,” said Scott Bumgardner, the district's business manager. “We're just not able to compete, even with classified staff. We're having employees leave us to go work at McDonald's.”
When the General Assembly overhauled the state's property tax system and established property tax caps, public school districts found their ability to raise revenue greatly affected. For better or worse, the referendum process that followed gives voters the authority to decide whether their property taxes should be raised to support schools. Huntington County's two-part request is unusual, but it's very much needed.
The growing popularity of early voting means voters are searching for candidate information and guidance weeks before Election Day. For that reason, The Journal Gazette editorial board accelerated its endorsement interview process to offer recommendations earlier than in past years.
While we recognize our political climate is increasingly fragmented and divisive, we still believe local newspapers have a responsibility to offer readers insight on the issues and candidates closest to home. We take great care to separate news coverage from editorial and opinion pieces, and we know our readers recognize the difference between the two. We also welcome views contrary to our own submitted as letters or oped columns. Our recommendations are based on hours of interviews with individual candidates and close observance of state and local government.
If you live in a community where a municipal election – or a school referendum – is under way, we encourage you to vote. Early voting begins Tuesday.
The Journal Gazette editorial board
Julie Inskeep, publisher
Sherry Skufca, editor
Karen Francisco, editorial page editor
Tim Harmon, editorial writer
Today: Huntington County school referendums
Friday: Fort Wayne city clerk
Sunday: Fort Wayne Council at large
Monday: Fort Wayne Council District 1
Tuesday: Fort Wayne Council District 3
Wednesday: Fort Wayne Council District 4
Thursday: Fort Wayne Council District 5
Oct. 11: New Haven mayor
Oct. 13: Fort Wayne mayor
Find endorsements online at journalgazette.net/Opinion/Endorsements