Students walk through the halls of Sprunica Elementary School on the first day of the 2022-2023 school year. The Brown County School Corporation had an operating referendum question on the ballot this general election, which would have increased the current tax rate from .08 to .12. The referendum did not pass. Abigail Youmans | The Democrat
Students walk through the halls of Sprunica Elementary School on the first day of the 2022-2023 school year. The Brown County School Corporation had an operating referendum question on the ballot this general election, which would have increased the current tax rate from .08 to .12. The referendum did not pass. Abigail Youmans | The Democrat
Shall Brown County schools increase property taxes paid to the school corporation?” The majority of Brown County voters answered that question by voting “no” in the general election.

There were 2,694 voters in favor of the proposed operating referendum and 3,027 voted against it.

Now Brown County Schools are reevaluating how to move forward after the proposed operating referendum failed.

Had it passed, the referendum would have increased to 12 cents per $100 of assessed value to the property tax rate, an increase over the current operating referendum that will expire at the end of 2023, which was approved by voters at 8 cents per $100 of assessed value in 2016.

According to the revenue spending plan, the estimated annual revenue from the proposed referendum levy – which would be in place from 2023-2030 — would be $1,892,512.

Brown County Schools receives $6,236.35 in “tuition support” from the state for each student who is enrolled on two different student count days in September and February.

Preschool and Career Resource Center students are not eligible for tuition support from the state. That money goes into the district’s education fund, which pays teachers and staff. Education fund dollars can only be utilized for instructional purposes.

Enrollment — and ultimately state funding — will continue to decline, according to projections from the district.

Right now Brown County Schools’ K-12 enrollment sits at 1,553, down from 1,569 students enrolled from the count at the end of the 2021-2022 school year. That equals a loss of nearly $100,000 in tuition support.

With the continued decline in state funding and if the current operating referendum goes away and another one is not approved, Brown County Schools Superintendent Emily Tracy said that by 2025 the school district will be operating at a deficit.

Now that the referendum has not passed, Brown County Schools will be forced to absorb $1.2 million back into its budget.

The revenue spending plan and the language of the referendum question was approved by the Department of Local Government Finance.

The question on the ballot said if the public question was approved by voters, “the average property tax paid to the school corporation per year on a residence would increase by 33.91% and the average property tax paid to the school corporation per year on a business property would increase by 20.91%.”

The Brown County Schools Political Action Committee’s “Vote YES” campaign was launched to clarify the question for voters and encourage voters to vote “yes.”

Had the referendum passed, the overall increase in property taxes — not per homeowner — paid to the schools would have increased by 33.91%, an increase of about $3.26 per month.

The only other option than a referendum, Tracy said last week, is for the schools to make substantial cuts to personnel and programming, which “greatly impacts student outcomes.”

“The referendum would have allowed us to continue supporting the CRC in Nashville without cutting programs as well as invest in early childhood,” Tracy said.

It would also have allowed the schools to recruit and retain “the best of the best” educators and employees in order to expand student opportunities and increase student outcomes, Tracy said.

The school corporation, she added, “desperately” needs to rebuild theater, choir and band programs along with bringing back and building out Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses like construction trades, welding, electrical, automotive, HVAC, etc. to Brown County High School.

“These are the opportunities our students deserve and our county needs. These are opportunities that require funding,” she said.

With the referendum not passing, Tracy said the schools will now take some time to think about next steps.

“Brown County Schools will take some time to evaluate our priorities so we can make the hard decisions that make the least impact on student outcomes,” she said.

“We will evaluate the next steps in seeking another referendum in the future.”

‘A Band-Aid to a problem’

Brown County resident Mark Partridge has lived in the area for nearly 20 years. His youngest daughter graduated from Brown County High School, where she was actively involved in theater.

He said he was undecided for several weeks on whether or not to vote yes or no on the referendum.

“I want to support Brown County School Corporation, I feel for wanting to support the community and schools,” he said.

“At the end of the day I couldn’t understand why they wanted to increase (the operating referendum) instead of leaving it at the current level.”

When he filled in his ballot, he decided to vote “no.”

If the schools had wanted to renew at the current rate, he said it would have been a “no brainer.”

“I would’ve voted ‘yes’ in a heartbeat,” he said.

“When they ask for more, you wonder what bang you’re going to get for your buck.”

To him, the case was not made on why the schools needed an increase, noting he is aware of cuts that now may have to happen since the referendum did fail.

He suggested that if a new referendum is posed in 2023 that the schools renew for the same amount or to itemize what an increased rate would provide.

“They have to adjust their funding in a way that people who are paying for it understand what they’re doing,” he said.

The referendum was the school trying to adapt as it faces a variety of issues, including declining enrollment, Brown County resident Sherrie Mitchell said.

One issue contributing to declining enrollment in the school system is the lack of available housing in the county, Mitchell said.

“The government continues to promote tourism through adding more guest and tourist rentals, commercial properties,” she said. ”You’re keeping young families from moving in here. Adding more money to (tourism) is not going to solve the problem.”

Mitchell said the referendum is a temporary fix to a permanent problem. “I will never vote for an increase to my taxes to put a Band-Aid on (this) problem,” she said.

“The Band-Aid is not going to solve the problem. We’ve lost 500 students in 10 years. When are they going to look at the problem of why enrollment is declining?” she asked.

The true issue, she believes, is that the schools’ overhead is too high.

“Eliminate cafeteria staff, maintenance, energy bills, you reduce your overhead. I know that’s a terrible thing to have to do, but that’s the reality of the problem. How many schools are you running at 30% capacity?”

Until these issues are addressed, she said that people will not want to move to the community and enroll students into the schools.

‘Investment, not expense’

From former teachers, school board candidates and parents of students enrolled in the schools, feelings were shared when the results came in on Election Day.

Kady Lane lives in the county and is a former teacher in Brown County Schools. She also ran for the Dist. 2 seat on Brown County School Board in the general election.

Being a part of the community, both in and out of school, a major goal of hers has been to help young students grow and thrive.

“Our community is only as strong as our youth,” she said last week.

When the referendum was introduced, Lane knew she was going to vote “yes,” but she had mixed emotions about it.

“I think financially the schools need to plan better going forward, but I also knew the ship, at this time, had sailed,” she said.

“I felt okay offering a Band-Aid while another plan was developed,” she said.

Lane is working on her doctorate in barriers to learning for rural youth living in poverty, from a nature and science perspective.

Being a teacher and working on her doctorate, she is involved in a variety of educational issues and has found through research that rural schools in Indiana are in a 2% deficit.

“I know we can come up with a plan, but we have to figure that out. As a county we need to figure out if we’re going to be tourist and retirement community, or if we’re going to grow,” she said.

The biggest factor for Lane voting “yes” was to support the community, students, educators and the community’s future.

“Potential programming is at great risk, I fear they will cut arts and music before they cut athletics,” she said.

When it comes to evaluating whether or not the majority of voters chose “no” on the ballot, Lane said she didn’t know how much of it was because of the mandated language of referendum.

She thought that the campaign for the referendum may have relied too heavily on an “emotional plea” of supporting the schools, rather than just stating the facts.

“It needs to be both,” she said.

“I’m really disappointed,” she said of the outcome.

Lane was not the only school board candidate to express disappointment in the referendum failing.

Dist. 2 candidate Jenise Bohbrink said it is “devastating” for the teachers, students and the school system as a whole.

“My heart goes out to the Brown County Schools staff,” she said after Election Day.

”I want to take each of them and hug them and tell them it’s going to be okay.”

Bohbrink works at the Brown County Community Foundation and is a parent of children in the school system.

“I would have rather the referendum passed and me not been elected,” Dist. 3 school board candidate Kevin McCracken said.

“That’s top priority. It’s profoundly disappointing. It’s a statement from the community that there’s a reluctance to invest in the schools.”

He added that the school system is a foundation for the community and without the referendum it’s hard to say what the future of the schools, or even the community, will be.

On Election Day, McCracken spent time with voters outside of polling locations and one of the more interesting conversations he had was with a young man who cast his vote for the very first time.

He had attended Brown County schools but did not graduate and is now enrolled in courses at the Career Resource Center, doing well.

“We had a rich conversation about his newfound success, it drove home how important the CRC is to the whole community,” McCracken said.

”Knowing that programs like this could be at risk makes me think about him. It’s given hope, opportunity that he otherwise would not have. If we lose the CRC or other programs, it’s taking hope away from our youth.

“Education is not expense, it’s an investment. Not (investing) will have consequences in the future.”

Kara Hammes and her family almost didn’t move to Brown County six years ago, because of the lack of affordable childcare.

She and her husband, Clint’s, children were one- and three-years-old at the time. Now, they’re in the second and third grade at Helmsburg Elementary School.

They own the Brown County Barn Burner in downtown Nashville and Hammes is a former educator at the Purdue Extension-Brown County Office. During the election season she was apart of the “Vote YES” campaign.

The schools being able to provide early childcare and even infant care is not them trying to make money, Hammes said.

“Schools aren’t trying to make a profit, they’re just trying to provide it because there’s a need,” she said.

She added that the schools stepping in and hoping they can offer infant and early childcare and that they’re able to sustain a business model that the community needs. “If you don’t have options, people don’t come here. … We’re all in this together.”

It was never a debate in Hammes’ mind on whether or not she would vote “yes” — she always knew that was her choice.

“I see what the schools do in the community, my family is directly impacted by it,” she said.

Hammes remembers her own time in school, in a small town in Ohio, where several referendums failed and how it made students in the school district feel.

“I don’t want that for any other kids,” she said.

It really affected programming in the schools, Hammes said, as significant financial cuts were made to athletics and extra curriculars.

“The schools do so much in Brown County,” she said, like providing childcare, adult education, interfacing with other groups in the county like Purdue Extension and offering educational opportunities, which she said are “crucial” in making Brown County a better place to live.

”People talk about all the time how there is nothing for kids to do here,” she said.

“The bulk of what is here is through the school.”

Beyond that, Hammes said, the referendum result sends a message to people in the school system that “the community doesn’t support them.”

“It drives them away. If enrollment is already a problem, how is this going to help?”

Hammes said her family will stay, but there will be some that decide to look elsewhere.

“Administration and school board will have tough decisions to make about the budget,” Hammes said.

It’s a tough concept to understand as an elementary student, but it’s one that Hammes tried to explain to her own kids as best as she could.

They’d see the “Vote Yes” signs everywhere, in their own home or out in the community.

After the referendum had failed, she was visibly upset and her kids asked what happened.

Their response was to ask if this meant they wouldn’t have any more fun at school.

“I told them there will still be teachers there that care,” Hammes said.

“They understand that it means less money, and that you need money to pay for things.

“If enrollment is declining, that means you need to cut things. … Even if you want to advocate for higher enrollment, I don’t think this vote helps with that. That trend isn’t going to change in a year or two years.”

As for potential consolidation of schools, Hammes said there is only so much that can physically happen while still serving the community.

For now, Hammes said, she waits.

She waits to see what the school board decides, whether they explore trying again for the next election or hold a special election to pose the question once again.

“I still think that even in that year, if there’s uncertainty, it still sends a message to people who live here or who may live here that their kids may not get the support they need. For me and from my experience in high school, that’s the message it sends.”
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