FORTVILLE — Supporters of Mt. Vernon’s referendum are going all in with a final push to sway voters before May 6, and they believe this is the district’s best and possibly last shot at a successful referendum.
GraduateMVCSC, a grassroots group started by Larry Longman and Jeff Mull, has been providing advocates with T-shirts and yard signs while maintaining a strong social media presence since the group was organized earlier this year.
They hope they’re convincing more people to vote “yes” this time around after two lopsided defeats the past four years.
Critics, meanwhile, are not convinced the lobbying effort will make any difference. Residents, they say, are still tired of being asked to raise taxes – just as they were in 2010 and 2012, when voters turned down ballot initiatives to raise taxes.
That has created a sense of urgency for proponents of the tax hike.
“This is our best shot,” Mt. Vernon School Board president Tony May said. “If we can’t pass it this time with the fact that (the referendum) is small and with the help from (GraduateMVCSC), I don’t think we ever will.”
The referendum, approved unanimously by the school board on Jan. 27, will seek an additional $2.5 million over three years to help eliminate some of the district’s remaining debt.
Mt. Vernon’s current total debt is about $124 million. The debt was restructured in 2012 to allow more freedom now and in the short-term for ballooning payments in the years to come. The school has paid down about $8.5 million of its nearly $11 million operating deficit. The remaining $2.5 million needs to be paid off. That’s where the referendum comes in.
If the tax increase is approved, it would add about 11 cents to every $100 of assessed value on property taxes. School board member Mike McCarty previously said the average cost increase would be about $70 per year for a home valued at $150,000.
But not everyone is convinced the referendum is a good idea. Former school board candidate and referendum opponent Jim Metcalfe acknowledges that GraduateMVCSC is helping spread the message, though he believes most people are not receptive.
“Our feeling is that most people don’t want to pay the taxes, and if they know about it and get out and vote, they’ll vote against it,” Metcalfe said. “(School) parents will vote for it.”
The GraduateMVCSC group held three public forums targeting Fortville, McCordsville and Buck Creek Township to share their message and garner support.
The first meeting in McCordsville was well-attended. Turnout for the others was disappointing.
Both sides agree the May 6 primary will see a significantly lower turnout than a general election. No one is certain what that will mean for the referendum.
If the referendum was up for a vote in November, when more people traditionally come out to the polls, Metcalfe said the referendum would surely fail.
“But it’s not November, and it’s anybody’s game,” Metcalfe said, adding that he thinks the vote will be close.
He continues to worry about the impact on lower-income taxpayers in the school district.
Metcalfe doesn’t believe this will be the last time Mt. Vernon pushes for a community referendum, no matter how it turns out in May.
“It can’t be,” Metcalfe said. “And I think we’re beyond the blame game. I don’t think if the referendum passes, any of the criticisms are going to change. I don’t think teachers are going to get a raise.”
Referendums have always been a last resort for Indiana school districts, and this will be Mt. Vernon’s third in four years. May pointed to a lack of communication and understanding as the reasons why voters defeated the referendums in 2010 and 2012.
“If I go to the ballot without knowing anything about it, and I see that somebody wants to increase my taxes, why would I vote for that?” May said.
That’s why he hopes Mull and Longman’s plan to inform voters with multiple public forums and other methods have been successful. May noted that the school board has no plans for a future referendum, regardless of the outcome on Election Day.
“I don’t see why we would. This one is to pay off the operating debt. We’re at the point where we’re back in the black on an annual basis,” May said. “I certainly don’t want to do any more referendums, but that’s the mechanism the state has given us.”
If the referendum is successful, the cash infusion will go into the general fund and eventually back into the classroom, he added. Then, the district would likely not have to ask for another tax increase.
Either way, they’re all prepared for either outcome, and GraduateMVCSC has a potential backup plan.
“I would say if it fails, you would probably see us back in some form or fashion. If that’s going back to the Statehouse next time, maybe that’s what we’ll do,” Longman said. “If it fails, obviously we know that the community does not support our schools. Or the community doesn’t care about voting. One or the other.”
When the votes are counted, Metcalfe said, he hopes for a real solution for the school’s financial woes can be found.
“It’s when we all sit down and admit that we’re going to have to have some big tax increases in the future to solve the problem that it will get solved,” Metcalfe said. “It depends upon the leadership. It depends if you want to keep this kind of thing going every two years.”
However, Metcalfe did say that he would be willing to go along with a compromise of some kind, though other voters might not be prepared for that.
“I would like to be part of the solution,” Metcalfe said. “But I don’t think that’s helped by making false claims on both sides.”
Both sides hope to stay rooted in facts and figures to solve the district’s problems.
“We organized the campaign on the premise that we are local citizens who are empowered by our state government to change outcomes by using the voting system. That is what we’re doing,” Longman said. “We don’t feel like the state Legislature was formulated to solve our problems, specifically and uniquely for our own school system. Our attempt is to solve our own problems.”
Those problems were caused by a number of factors over the last several years. School officials have always pointed to the economy collapsing in 2008, shortly after the building project; state funding cuts; property tax caps and lower-than-average per-pupil funding.
“There is a lot of negativity and emotions that the school overspent and is looking for a bailout. If you take the time to study the issue, it is very evident that the school has not been irresponsible. The equations changed for them,” Longman said.
So far, GraduateMVCSC has done what it can to share its message.
“We’d like to have a year to work on the campaign,” Longman said. “In earnest, we didn’t get boots on the ground until the end of January. That was a limited time frame to accomplish a lot.”
GraduateMVCSC has organized some voting parties for voters in support of the referendum and is encouraging early voting. They also plan to be at some of the polling locations on May 6.
“We think the school is the beacon of our community, and our vibrancy is centered around it. If our school is failing or struggling, that’s really a sign of how people feel about this place. We think it’s a pride issue,” Longman said. “If you’re an adult, someone paid for your education. We’re just asking to pay it back.”