Kelly Smith and Julie McClure, News Dispatch Staff Writers

MICHIGAN CITY — Residents in the Michigan City Area Schools district Tuesday decisively turned back a proposed referendum that would have increased property tax rates by 17 cents per $100 net assessed valuation for the next seven years, voting to keep the tax rate at its current level.

The vote was 3,498 voting “no,” 2,601 voting “yes” — a paltry 16.44 voter turnout for the referendum ballot. The question about the tax increase for MCAS was the only item on the ballot in Michigan City as this year is a non-election year.

The only precincts where “yes” votes outnumbered “no” were all four precincts in Ward 4, the fourth precinct in ward 5 and Pottawatomie Park.

In Porter County, both Pine precincts voted against the referendum, with Pine 1 recording 101 “no” votes to 39 voting “yes.”

All ballots were counted before 7:30 p.m., a brisk and efficient tally that indicated early, from the very first precincts reporting, that the referendum was in deep trouble.

Dozens of MCAS administrators, teachers, parents, students and other volunteers — all supporters of the referendum — packed Crawford’s Pub and Eatery Tuesday night to watch as the results from individual voting precincts were projected on one of four large screens normally used to show sporting events.

Despite the apparent public disapproval, Steve Klink, the consultant MCAS hired to advise them on the issue, tried to remain positive as he addressed the crowd, complimenting the school system and volunteers. However, after never before having lost a referendum vote, he did succumb to some emotion over the final tally.

Superintendent Barbara Eason-Watkins, also emotional over the outcome, remained positive.

“Our kids are outstanding,” she said. “We’ve seen progress in terms of our academics; and students are excelling outside of academics.”

School Board President Don Dulaney expressed disappointment over the outcome.

“The community wants an education within lower budget parameters, and that’s what they’ll get,” he said.

Dulaney said that MCAS general fund budget appropriations were based on a positive outcome of the referendum. That means that before the 2014-2015 school year, at least $2.8 million must be cut from the budget.

“The problem is that the general fund budget is 90 percent personnel,” he said.

Dulaney said that the district’s teachers’ aides had already been reduced by 75 percent, and custodians and administrators by approximately 50 percent each. Next on the agenda, he said, will be teachers.

“But everything is on the table,” he said, referring to academic programs and extracurricular activities.

Maggi Spartz, president of the Unity Foundation of La Porte County and a member of the referendum’s steering committee, said, “It’s very sad what this is going to mean.”

She said that the “no” vote will have a “negative ripple effect,” and will cause additional difficulty for organizations such as the Unity Foundation to have to find and provide grants for public school teachers.

Former Michigan City Mayor Chuck Oberlie, a campaign volunteer for the referendum, said he was surprised at the outcome.

“The budget was already reduced by $7 million, so it’s not like there’s a lot of fat there,” he said.

Debbie Pedzinski, president of the Michigan City High School Parent Network, said, “I’m very disappointed that the community couldn’t give 17 cents for education... It not only impacts our education system; it impacts our property values, economic development.”

Pedzinski called it an “emotional” election, and said she was frustrated that so many voters “didn’t get their facts right” before casting their ballots.

“The scariest part is what’s going to happen to our education system ... the future leaders of our city,” she said.
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