A week after Hamilton Community Schools prevailed in a second effort to renew its operating levy, Superintendent Anthony Cassel was in his office, working out details with the town marshal for a drone-racing league.
The successful referendum vote removes the threat of shutting down the 300-student district, so Cassel said he now can spend his time looking for opportunities that students might not find elsewhere.
“We have stopped the exodus, now the hard work begins,” he said Wednesday.
Hamilton Schools' fate rested with voters. From 421 students in 2014-15, the district about 40 miles northeast of Fort Wayne had fallen to an enrollment of just 282 in 2017-18. In November 2018, voters rejected a tax increase of 71 cents per $100 of assessed value by a 44-56 margin.
“Our community sent a very strong message last year,” said Cassel, who joined the district in July 2018. “We asked what will they support, and they let us know. ... We had positions we didn't fill. When the community knows you are listening, they are more apt to come on board and support you.”
This year, Hamilton's referendum request was held to its current 44-cent operating levy. The measure passed by a 70-30 margin.
But Cassel can empathize with officials at Huntington County Community School Corp., where both an operating and construction referendum failed – the latter by just 53 votes. Huntington sought an increase in its debt service property tax rate to a maximum of 33.8 cents to support a $68.5 million renovation of Huntington North High School. Separately, it sought an increase of a maximum 6 cents per $100 of assessed value to support academic programs, manage class sizes, and attract and retain teachers.
Huntington school officials were making their first attempt to raise money outside their existing levy. In the state's decade-long experience with referendums, about half of the districts have lost their first voter appeal. About 80% of districts have prevailed on a second attempt.
Fort Wayne Community Schools' first ask was in 2007, before the current referendum process went into effect. But the district's losing effort in a $500 million remonstrance vote was followed by successful construction campaigns in 2012 and 2016. Officials now are preparing to ask district taxpayers for a third phase of the ongoing FWCS Repair program: $130 million for improvements at 33 schools, including major renovations of Wayne High School and Blackhawk and Miami middle schools.
On a tour last week, facilities and support services coordinator Heather Krebs showed off work at Northrop High School, where construction that began in 2018 is still underway. The progress is striking, however, with renovation of the auditorium and the addition of a secure entryway. Where visitors once entered directly into a glass-walled commons area, they now enter through administrative offices.
The $40 million renovation also includes classroom upgrades, with LED lighting installations that create dramatically improved learning conditions. New windows and a new HVAC system also are part of the overhaul. Krebs said the district has typically seen a 25% reduction in energy costs in the schools where those improvements have been made.
As with the last referendum, the tax rate is not expected to increase beyond the current 0.3028%. A tour and information meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. today at St. Joseph Central Elementary, 6341 St. Joe Center Road, and again Monday at Northrop, with the information sessions beginning at 6 p.m.
The school board will hold two public hearings on the proposal, on Nov. 25 and Dec. 9. The board is expected to vote on whether to place the referendum on the May 5 ballot after the December hearing.
Fort Wayne officials in 2016 could point to a record of finishing projects on time and under budget. They have a stronger case as they prepare for a third ask. Huntington school officials didn't have that advantage last week. But Hamilton Superintendent Cassel's newly earned referendum wisdom applies in all cases: “Be honest; be transparent; educate; and don't be afraid of the tough questions.”