A Look at the Facts Before You Head to the Polls
By now you’ve seen the yard signs and may have attended the meetings held by Zionsville Community Schools’ (ZCS) administrators and/or referendum supporters calling for your votes in favor of a two-question referendum that will be on the ballot this November.
We sat down with ZCS Superintendent Dr. Scott Robison and CFO Mike Shafer to discuss the two parts to the proposed referendum: capital facilities and operating levy. We also discussed the ramifications if it does not pass.
The Challenges: Increasing Enrollment and Low State Funding
Fact: Funding is low. ZCS remains the lowest-funded school district in Indiana, receiving the lowest state funding amount on a per pupil basis of any school district in the state.
As the lowest-funded school district per pupil in the state, ZCS faces many challenges due to increasing enrollment. Facilities studies show that all of its elementary schools will be full by 2023 with some being over capacity much sooner than that. According to Robison, Union Elementary hit 105% capacity this fall as predicted.
Another fact: Indiana funding from ZCS’ 2012 operating referendum (which was extended in 2015) is supporting about one-third of its teaching positions.
Additionally, population growth in our area is filling our schools. The population of our communities has roughly doubled since 2010.
What Is the Plan?
Robison and Shafer have spent the last 18 months on an input tour throughout the district, educating as well as collecting input from taxpayers on the proposed plans.
ZCS proposes to build a new elementary school, add 32 classrooms to the high school and facilitate long-term maintenance, repairs and renovation at each of its buildings, affecting the 1.6 million square feet ZCS uses to educate more than 7,000 students.
The proposed facilities tax rate of 19.69 cents would still bring the aggregate school tax rate to a lower level than in the current year (to $1.268 from this year’s $1.298). The rate will decrease because previous building bonds are being paid off.
In addition, ZCS proposes to extend the current operating referendum at the same maximum tax rate of 24.4 cents for eight years. This is an extension of the same rate that was originally authorized in 2012 and extended in 2015. One hundred percent of the levy derived from this tax rate goes to classroom teachers, counselors and other specialists like speech and hearing teachers. This maintains reasonable class sizes and allows ZCS to continue providing top-notch education to a growing community.
If assured funding via the proposed 2019 referendum, Robison will begin the construction process for the new elementary immediately following the election.
“We would like to place the new elementary at the County Road 875 campus where we currently have athletic facilities and where we own the northern half of that campus that is undeveloped,” Robison said. “We would like to start construction as soon as possible and would want to open the [elementary] school in the fall of 2022. We are growing at over 200 students per year, and if we are not successful [with passing the referendum], we will have to look at redistricting earlier and probably more frequently until we find out whether or not there are going to be adequate facilities available to our students.”
Facilities and Operating Levies Go Hand in Hand
While growth throughout the district is out of the school district’s realm of control, it is directly affected by the increasing population.
“Union [Township] is not in Whitestown,” Shafer pointed out. “The growth is uniform across the [school] district. Some [townships] are growing slightly faster than others as our demographic numbers show. When we say 2023 is that ‘magic’ year when the total capacity of the [district’s] buildings—all our elementary schools—is exceeded by the total number of elementary kids that we have, we are saying that at that point, there is no amount of redistricting that will give us enough room—anywhere in the district.”
So, how is the high school affected by the present growth and the eventual funneling up of the additional elementary students?
“The high school is already slated for at least two more additions to reach its capacity,” Robison explained. “This was a long-term plan that was first set in 2001 and renewed in 2008 when we provided a campus master plan. This [proposed addition of 32 classrooms] will be the next of two potential increases in capacity at the high school.”
Shafer added, “We have to know that our finances are in place and will be in order to be able to start [construction of] a new building. We have to know that we can afford the staff that we’re going to put in that building before we commit to the cost of actually building it. They [facilities tax rate and operating levy] complement each other. While one could exist without the other, they don’t function without the other.”
ZCS Is Making the Financial Grade
Standard & Poor’s upgraded ZCS’ credit rating in 2018 to “AA.” This is the highest-level credit rating S & P has assigned to any public-school district in the State of Indiana. Only one other school district in the state has this same rating (Carmel). ZCS holds this highest credit rating while receiving the lowest state funding amount on a per pupil basis of any school district in the state. Robison shared how the district’s evidence of fiscal management and creditworthiness plays into the rates issued on new bonds.
”Our best projections are that the new rate that we get on the new bonds, once they’re sold, is actually a little lower than the bonds that we’re paying off,” Robison said. “And, of course, we made the time frames work so that there’s a coincidence on retiring old debt as new debt would come on. We essentially keep the tax rate level, and at the same time, we’re able to issue the new bonds and pay for the new building.”
Why Does Passing the Referendum Matter to All Taxpayers?
“I think the main answer for folks who do not have children in our schools is that the two strongest corelates to having excellent local public schools are property values and community safety. I don’t know anyone who would vote against having good property values that are sustained and look as though they’re going to do well into the future, nor do I think we have folks that would vote against community safety.”
He continued, “I hope that those people who don’t have kids in the [school] district, they understand that by helping our schools sustain their excellence, we are actually causing the taxpayers’ finances to be more predictable, and that’s a good thing.”
What Happens if the Referendum Doesn’t Pass?
If the referendum for construction fails, ZCS will have more immediate and frequent rounds of redistricting, higher class sizes (because of no new spaces in which to place 200-plus new students each year) and portable classrooms.
If the operating referendum is not approved, the current levy would stay in place through 2021. Spring of 2022 would bring massive program cuts and loss of ZCS professional staff. Multiple rounds of school attendance area changes and higher class sizes would begin in the spring of 2020.
“If we don’t pass, that will subject one-third of our professional staff to what might come next, and it’s not good,” Robison stated. “Our professional staff equals programs and class sizes. If they go away, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand what will happen next.”
Currently, out of the state’s 289 school districts, 65 are existing under operating referenda. At present, this is the funding mechanism by which they are keeping their doors open, lights on and classrooms staffed.
“We’re the lowest-funded school district in the state, but we’re not the only ones in the wilderness who are existing on referenda,” Robison emphasized. “Carmel, Westfield, H.S.E., Avon, Noblesville, Brownsburg and several other districts are as well. For the foreseeable future, we are a referendum state.”
For an in-depth explanation of the proposed referendum, go to zcs.k12.in.us.