FORTVILLE — It was their best shot.
Larry Longman and Jeff Mull started a grassroots campaign early this year, fueled by a committee of volunteers, to persuade taxpayers to vote in favor of raising taxes to support Mt. Vernon schools.
It was the third appeal in four years. This time, it was enough.
The referendum, which will raise property taxes enough to pay off $2.5 million in operating debt over the next three years, was narrowly approved: Only 10 votes separated “yes” and “no.” (See box.)
“We told a good story. We told an honest story. We’ve been transparent. We’ve told the truth, the facts, and the community heard us and by a slim margin passed it,” Mt. Vernon School Board member Shelton Oakes said.
Supporters behind GraduateMVCSC organized voting parties for voters in support of the referendum and encouraged early voting. They also sent Mt. Vernon students to some of the polling locations on Tuesday in a show of support. They held community meetings and maintained a strong social media presence. Longman and Mull pointed to the help they received as one of the fundamental differences that made this referendum different.
“It’s our committee and our volunteers. It’s mindsets. It’s a lot of people who are done with being complacent and wanted to act on the issue, who got out and influenced their neighbors and got out to vote,” Longman said. “They care about the community.”
Early on, referendum supporters knew the campaign would be an uphill climb. In both 2010 and 2012, voters said “no” to Mt. Vernon’s request for property tax increases. The 2010 referendum would have allowed Mt. Vernon to collect up to an additional $1 million for up to seven years. It failed, 3,722 votes to 2,538.
In 2012, the district’s second referendum for $650,000 per year for three years failed by a margin of 5,010 to 3,764 votes. That money would have paid off loan interest on the district’s then-expected loan of about $3.5 million from the state’s Distressed Unit Appeals Board. At the time, MV teachers attributed the loss to the high percentage of voters without children in the school district.
After the second referendum failed, the school board pinned its hopes on the loan. Late last year, however, it was denied.
“We had a significant burden to overcome,” Mull said.
This year’s referendum sought $2.5 million over three years to help eliminate the lingering debt problem. For the average homeowner, that means they would see an increase of about 11 cents per every $100 of assessed property tax value.
School officials previously said the average increase in property taxes would be about $70 per year for a home valued at about $150,000.
Going into the 2014 referendum, proponents continually pointed to a lack of communication and understanding as the reasons why voters chose to stop the referendums in the past. Those opposed to the tax increase said people simply did not want to pay more taxes, and the area’s agricultural community would be adversely affected.
Critics such as Jim Metcalfe have pointed to the regressive nature of real estate taxes. On Tuesday night, Metcalfe said that a recount might be considered.
Mt. Vernon has paid down about $8.5 million of its nearly $11 million operating deficit. The remaining $2.5 needs to be paid off before school administrators say they can feel free of the debt burden.
The next step for Mt. Vernon will be to get an official ruling on the outcome from the Department of Local Government Finance. The incremental tax put in place by the vote will start bringing in revenue in 2016. Also, referendum supporters hope to start the healing process.
“I actually think this has been very divisive in the community. I would say that it’s time for us to come back together. The community has spoken; the majority has spoken. This is what we’re going to do going forward. Let’s embrace it and make the most of it, and not let this tear us apart any further,” Longman said.
Both Oakes and Mt. Vernon Superintendent Bill Riggs said this was a good way to end their careers with the schools. Riggs is retiring from Mt. Vernon at the end of the 2014-15 school year. Oakes is leaving his position on the school board this summer.
“It is a good way to go out,” Oakes said. “We got a lot of credit for putting the ‘community’ back in Mt. Vernon Community School system.”
Oakes credited the community’s support, including the efforts of Mt. Vernon High School seniors.
“We had a lot of seniors at the high school come out and vote, and they made a difference. (GraduateMVCSC) worked hard and made a difference. I’m really proud,” Oakes said. “We’ll attract a better field of candidates to replace Dr. Riggs because of this. We’re really proud of the community,” Oakes said.
Riggs said the biggest difference was where the referendum came from.
“I said all along that it had a different feel because it was coming from the community instead of the school,” Riggs said. “One was the fact that the community was leading, and the other was the involvement of the board members.”
Previous Mt. Vernon School Boards overseeing the referendum chose to stay out of the political nature of the issue.
“These guys got out and worked their fannies off. When you see board members out there working that hard, people believe what they say is true,” Riggs said.