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Mt. Vernon referendum: Third time around

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Classroom sizes have increased at Mt. Vernon schools, especially at the high school, where about 25 percent of the teaching staff has been cut over the past few years. Referendum proponents believe the impacts of cost-cutting measures implemented at MV might be enough to sway voters. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)
Classroom sizes have increased at Mt. Vernon schools, especially at the high school, where about 25 percent of the teaching staff has been cut over the past few years. Referendum proponents believe the impacts of cost-cutting measures implemented at MV might be enough to sway voters. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)

FORTVILLE — If the Mt. Vernon School Board votes to move forward with the district’s referendum on Monday, it will be the third try in less than four years.

The two prior referendums, in 2010 and 2012, failed by double-digit margins. But with a grassroots campaign spearheaded by MV parents who want to see the referendum pass, school officials and supporters see this time around as their best chance to court voters.

“We do not favor any more cost-cutting. We are addressing the revenue side,” said Larry Longman, who along with Jeff Mull is spearheading the pro-referendum efforts with a group called GraduateMVCSC. “The costs have been cut as deep as they can. Now we have to get additional revenue to offset the deficit.”

GraduateMVCSC’s ultimate goal is to see Mt. Vernon eliminate its debt. Longman and Mull were spurred into action after the state’s recently established Distressed Unit Appeals Board, which was designed to specifically address state loans to ailing school districts, denied Mt. Vernon’s request for a $2.5 million loan.

School officials believe having GraduateMVCSC in their corner could make the third time the charm for MV referendums. Couple that with the fact that the impacts of the cost-cutting measures implemented at MV are more visible, and it might be enough to turn around voter sentiment.

“We’re not talking about building stuff. We’re talking about classroom performance. We’re talking about teachers,” school board President Tony May said. “I think they are starting to come around.”

According to May, some people who spoke negatively of the referendums in the past and voted against them are changing their minds now that the deep cuts the district has made have come to light, including shuttering the former Fortville Elementary School; reducing the teaching staff; implementing a pay-to-play program for all clubs and athletics; and moving eighth-grade students to the high school building.

“The message is getting out. We’re really talking about performance in the classroom,” May said.

As many teachers leave Mt. Vernon for similar but better-paying jobs elsewhere, the recruitment has been primarily younger teachers with less experience. A high amount of teacher turnover has had a negative impact on the school as well. Also, classroom sizes are going up, especially at the high school level, where during the past few years about 25 percent of the teaching staff has been cut.

Test scores are trending down, and school administrators point to the cuts as the main culprit.

“There are a lot of concerns about the schools’ performance and the grades and some of the student scores,” May said.

But not everyone is convinced a referendum is the best way for Mt. Vernon to eliminate its debt.

Jim Metcalfe, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Mt. Vernon school board in 2012 at the same time the school’s second referendum was on the ballot, said he and others will continue to fight against a referendum.

 “I’m concerned that the taxpayers aren’t aware of the gravity of the situation,” Metcalfe said.

A successful referendum would create a greater draw on local property taxes. With the situation brewing at Mt. Vernon Schools, Metcalfe could see the writing on the wall.

“I was absolutely sure (another referendum) was coming. It was no surprise to me,” he said.

He also believes this is the first in what will become a stream of appeals to taxpayers that will supply the school with money.

“This isn’t the first. It’s not the smallest. And it’s not the last,” Metcalfe said. “This is just the beginning.”

During the 2012 campaign, Metcalfe joined forces with fellow school board candidates Carolyn Flynn and Ralph Spears, running on an anti-referendum campaign. Tony May, Michael McCarty and Jason Shelton ran together on a platform that supported the 2012 referendum and won the three available school board seats. However, the referendum failed to gain support from voters.

“Even though I didn’t get elected, the referendum failed,” Metcalfe said. “People are opposed to referendums.”

According to Metcalfe, there are early rumblings and emails going around in anticipation of a battle against the referendum.

“Definitely, there’s going to be an anti-referendum group,” Metcalfe said. “There will definitely be an opposition to it.”

He expects this third referendum to turn out the same as the others and that the issue at Mt. Vernon will end up being solved with help from the state when things at the school get bad enough.

“It’s going to be solved. It has to be solved,” Metcalfe said.

He added that the state would likely step in before Mt. Vernon had to do something drastic such as declare bankruptcy.

“I hope I don’t have to pay the taxes when the solution is given to us,” Metcalfe said.

If the referendum does get approval on the ballot, the tax changes would not begin until 2015, and the tax collections would not begin until 2016.

In the meantime, those who support the referendum will use the opportunity to teach others what a referendum entails and what it could do for the school.

“I think a lot of it is just going to be education,” May said. “The last school board, when they voted for the referendum, they took the position that they were not going to get involved.”

The involvement of a local group of taxpayers in favor of the referendum could be the difference.

 “It’s taxpayer-driven. We’re the ones that have to pay the bill. We’re the ones saying we want the changes to take place because the schools are of the utmost importance to the community,” Longman said.

They don’t want the school to become average.

“The cuts that have been made have been appropriate to the level that we can go to and still meet expectations,” Longman said. “The Graduate group comes in and says, ‘We are not going to just meet; we’re going to exceed.’ ”

Longman said the fact this potential referendum vote would take place in May does not impact the GraduateMVCSC group’s plans, and the group would not be taking a much different approach if the vote were in the November election.

“This is the first election cycle that follows the failure of the (state) loan,” Longman said. “That was the genesis for starting the movement.”

The referendum vote if put on the ballot would be up in May during the primaries when only local elections are taking place, and turnout is generally much lighter. The 2012 referendum was on the ballot with the presidential race.

“I think getting people to come out in the primary is always a challenge,” May said. “I think a lot of people don’t vote in the primaries. That’s what this GraduateMVCSC group is attempting to do: get the parents and students energized to get out to vote.”

Metcalfe said he doesn’t believe that plan will be effective.

“That’s not going to intimidate the people that are opposed to this,” he said. “It’s just intimidation. It’s a bunch of smoke.”

Ultimately, if the school board votes to put a referendum on the ballot, it will all be in the hands of the voters in May.

“We’ve cut costs as low as we can go, and we’re starting to see the negative impacts of it,” Longman said. “The only way to eliminate the deficit is to bolster the revenue side.”

For now, GraduateMVCSC is waiting on the school board vote on Monday night to see if the referendum will move forward.

“That’s really the kickstart that will get us moving,” Longman said. “And if you do want to get involved, start by coming out on Monday night.”

The school board meeting is set for 7 p.m. Monday at the administration building, 1776 W. Ind. 234 in Fortville.

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