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Debt is priority for MV candidates

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A candidate grid featuring side-by-side answers by candidates to a series of questions can be found on pages A4-A5.

A candidate forum, organized by the Classroom Teachers’ Association, is scheduled for 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 29 at the Mt. Vernon High School auditorium. A video of the previous forum held Oct. 1 is available for viewing at the school’s website, www.mvscs.k12.in.us.

FORTVILLE — Each of the seven candidates for the three

at-large seats on the Mt. Vernon School Board agree on at least one thing: The debt incurred by the school district must be dealt with.

But their approaches to dealing with the debt and other issues are diverse.

The race is easily Hancock County’s mostly hotly contested election. Four years of dismal financial reports,  a failed tax referendum in 2010 and a board vote to seek another one this year have stoked passions about the best way to navigate the district out of its predicament.

The candidates generally have aligned into two camps. Tony May, Michael McCarty and Jason Shelton believe more budget cuts will be damaging to the school system but stop short of endorsing the referendum. Carolyn Flynn, James Metcalfe and Ralph Spears have been critical of the district’s strategies and oppose increasing taxes at all costs.

All six are first-time candidates. The lone incumbent, Bob Hiday, backs the referendum but has at times been skeptical of his colleagues’ actions on the board.

Shelton said, “The three of us figured out that we have a lot of the same points we want to get across, and we can do a whole lot more with the three of us rather than each of us going alone.”

Mt. Vernon’s massive debt, which is largely due to the $77 million building project and the collapse of the economy, is not a problem that Shelton, May and McCarty think they can just jump in and repair.

“Part of it was understanding that the financial situation that the school is in is going to take a long time to fix,” May said. “I think we’re all fiscally conservative but not necessarily to the detriment to the quality of education. It’s how can we be more innovative in the schools and improve the quality of education while keeping the costs lower.”

Making the most of the district’s existing assets while working to improve the overall educational opportunities is paramount to the three candidates.

“A lot of it comes down to how (the schools) can be more efficient with the resources they have,” Shelton said.

McCarty said his business expertise would be an asset to the school board.

“I bring over 25 years of business experience and financial planning to the jobs I’ve been involved in,” McCarty said. “I think that’s not only important from a financial standpoint but also from a longer-term business-planning standpoint.”

While they share similar ideas of dealing with the debt and focusing on education, Flynn, Metcalfe and Spears have their own proposals they say could help the schools.

“(We want) to restore some kind of balance,” Flynn said. “I want to see academics balanced against the athletics. I want to see the taxpayers balanced against the administration and the parents. The taxpayer needs to be represented, and I want to provide that representation to all of them. … In order to restore fiscal sanity, we have got to absolutely start cutting spending. We have got to get to the essential services and bring that cost down. We will have to look for additional revenue, but I don’t want to do it on the back of the taxpayer.”

That plan could include selling unneeded property.

“If we were to be chosen, it will be on the basis that we are coming to rescue the fiscal mess,” Flynn said. “That’s going to require some hard decisions. We won’t be popular, (but) we’re prepared to make those hard decisions.”

Metcalfe noted that taxpayer protection is a key component of the strategy.

“My long-term goal is going to be to help the school to realize that they can’t keep going to the taxpayer trough to feed to meet the quality standards,” he said.

An inner-city pastor for 30 years, Spears has also served as a teacher, school bus driver, music instructor and director of counseling. He said his experience will put him on the same wavelength as many students.

“I know what the colleges are looking for; I know what the SAT and other (tests) mean,” Spears said.

He added that assessing the current resources is a good first step.

“Before you change, you have to understand what we have,” Spears said. “The most important thing that the school board will deal with is the education of the children. That is the number one thing.”

He said that some of the changes that have been proposed to date, such as an increase in taxes, are not the best way to ensure success.

“Are we bringing change on the backs of farmers who have their taxes increased to an unusual amount?” Spears said. “When we are proposing change, (we have to do) the best job for everyone.”

Hiday has been on the school board for eight years and said it can be difficult to get a good grasp on school finances at first.

“I am willing and have studied very hard over the years to be a board member,” Hiday said. “(It takes an) extensive amount of reading, an extensive amount of research. One thing I am proud of is I’ve never missed a school board meeting.”

Hiday graduated from MV and had three sons do the same.

“I know this corporation very, very well,” Hiday said. “Knowing government, knowing the complexity of school funding finances, knowing state laws — it’s a very difficult job.”

Flynn pointed to her success in raising four children and her 29 years in the military as strengths she can bring to the position.

“It taught me leadership,” Flynn said. “It also taught me not to ask anybody to do anything I wasn’t willing to do myself.”

Her children were home-schooled, but that, she said, gave her a deeper sense of what’s involved in educating children and the responsibility of turning children into functioning adults.

“I’m always looking for solutions, and I think with the problems we’re facing, we’re going to need a lot of ideas,” Flynn said.

Flynn was an active participant in the 2005 remonstrance that cut the renovation and building project at Mt. Vernon in half, to about $77 million instead of the proposed $135 million.

“I’m sorry we didn’t push it further,” she said.

May spent three years on the Corporation Improvement Council and was a founding member of the Mt. Vernon Education Foundation, having served as its president.

“My background is really in engineering,” May said.

He works for Rolls Royce, analyzing data and information, with a focus on problem-solving.

“I think that can really be brought to bear (with) the problems the school is facing,” May said.

With six grandchildren in school, Metcalfe said one of his concentrations would be to get children excited about learning and to focus more on academics. He has a degree in mathematics and served as an adjunct professor at Taylor University.

“I know what it’s like to try to discover something new,” Metcalfe said. “I’m anxious to see young people get those kinds of skills.”

Shelton pointed to his real-world experience as an asset.

“I’ve been a consultant for the last several years where I go in and help businesses and look at how they’re functioning and look at some of their efficiencies and how they can problem solve and become more profitable businesses,” he said

The father of a fifth- and seventh-grader, Shelton said he wants all of the children in the district to have the same opportunities he did and to be able to become well-rounded students.

Flynn, Metcalfe and Spears argue that poor management contributed to the budget problem at Mt. Vernon.

“The schools that we have today, (such as the Mt. Vernon High School) were purchased at the expense of teachers and manageable classroom sizes,” Flynn said.

Debt on the local level and beyond is increasing everywhere, and Flynn said the school’s accumulation of debt was “ridiculous,” adding the focus has been on the wrong areas, such as building and renovations.

“This has not helped the kids learn and has not helped improve the community,” she said. “These buildings are just shells. What was valuable here were the teachers and the curriculum.”

New solutions and creative ways to get fresh revenue streams without reaching into taxpayers’ wallets is the only way to find success going forward, Flynn said.

Hiday said the reason the district finds itself in such financial straits now traces back almost 40 years, when the school board at the time chose not to collect as much money as legally allowed, giving local taxpayers a break.

“Our one biggest obstacle is the general fund,” Hiday said. “Our school corporation has been hampered since the 1970s. If we were at state average, we would be receiving approximately $2.4 million (more) a year. This is the crux of our whole problem.”

The general fund is now supported solely by the state. Hiday said he believes the restructuring of the district’s debt – an act the school board approved earlier this year – will help.

“This will be gradually corrected over the next several years,” Hiday said.

May said a different tactic might be best to assuage the district’s debt.

“I do believe that companies like Rolls Royce are partnering with schools in the state to do things like robotics clubs and rocket clubs, and it’s those types of opportunities we are taking full advantage of,” he said.

His company’s investment in technology has been a strong success, and May said he would like to see a similar approach by the school board.

“My company isn’t buying technology because it’s fancy or because it’s the newest thing; it has to save us money; it has to make us more effective,” May said.

The complexity of school funding isn’t lost on McCarty, who said other ways of looking at a budget and moving away from the deficit are going to be key factors if the next school board is to find success.

“Our biggest risk is that if we start to lose or threaten any sort of enrollment, that is critical to the base (funding) we have,” he said. “Making sure we stay sound and fiscally responsible is going to be a big challenge.”

He agreed with May that bringing in different types of technology platforms would be instrumental in both helping students and shaving costs.

The situation at Mt. Vernon is simple, according to Metcalfe.

“We’ve got so much debt that we have incurred in the past that we’ve got to consider more cuts in order to get ourselves into financial shape again,” Metcalfe said.

Borrowing millions of dollars and increasing liabilities is not the solution, said Metcalfe, who believes an aggressive approach to eliminating the debt is the right way to go.

“What I would do is look for cuts, (look for) increased revenue and try to give the taxpayer more control over how much we put a liability against their property,” Metcalfe said.

Shelton said tackling the debt might not be so simple.

“When we talk about what can we do (and) what’s an idea, we can look at the business model,” Shelton said. “Everybody starts a business to make a profit, and the only way to make a profit is to make more money or spend less. That’s it, when you boil it down to the simplest approach.”

During the last few years, significant cuts have been made at Mt. Vernon, totaling about $4 million and about one out of six jobs.

“How many more cuts can be made?” Shelton said. “I’m sure there are efficiencies, some tweaks that can be made. But what kind of impact they’ll make in the long haul, I’m not sure.”

Shelton agreed with McCarty that more revenue must come into the school system. An increase in enrollment would help, he said. Also, online academies and more related opportunities for students could bring more students in, he said.

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