Voters this fall are looking at more than city and town elections. In 17 precincts voters are being asked whether they are willing to support a $38 million building project for the Washington Community Schools
The project includes some security upgrades for all buildings, but the centerpiece is a new middle school that would provide room for 960 students in grades 5, 6, 7 and 8.
The school system wants to put the new facility on a nearly 100-acre site purchased this summer.
“Ultimately, we are looking for a space to educate students,” said Washington Community Schools Superintendent Dr. Dan Roach. “With this we will have the classrooms, the labs that are necessary. We’ll have the music space and cafeteria and so forth and the auxiliary gym.”
All projects come with a price tag. The corporation is seeking the permission to spend the $38 million for the project through a referendum that will allow it to raise taxes by as much as 48 cents per $100 property valuation above the current tax rate.
“We’ve tried to be very clear from the beginning that the only thing we can do is build and add on to the tax rate,” said Roach.
To pay for the school, the proposal is to sell a 20-year bond. Based on the current assessed valuation of $590,893,589, that 48-cent per $100 valuation would raise slightly more than $3,346,000 each year to retire the debt. School officials say the 48-cent impact, though, assumes no growth in the district.
“The assessed value (AV) is a moving target until it is certified each year,” said Washington Schools Business Manager Carrie Alford. “As our AV grows, the burden on the individual taxpayer goes down.”
Of course, the number everyone wants to know is what would the project take out of their wallets.
“I look at this as an investment in the community, the children and the future,” said Jason Omer, chairman of the Yes 4 Washington PAC. “It will increase property taxes, but the benefits outweigh the negatives. Good schools attract people, that increases property values. It should bring more people, more business and more opportunity.”
But not everyone is in favor of the project. Washington resident Tim Bateman says he is one of a lot of people against the proposal.
“Nobody has spoken out against it and everybody I have talked to…the only person in favor of it is somebody that’s on the school board,” he said. “Everybody else is against it.”
He says his opposition is not against the school, but against the additional tax.
“I’m against us getting our taxes raised because of the hiring practices of a corporation,” said Bateman. “I’m not convinced that there is no need for it. I am convinced the people they want to pay for it are the wrong people. We didn’t cause this school. We didn’t cause the need for this school. The turkey barons caused the need for this school. Send the bill to the turkey barons.”
School officials say the property for the projected building will give them an opportunity to do long-range planning that could someday put most of the education in Washington in that roughly 100-acre neighborhood behind Griffith Elementary School.
“By obtaining that piece of property, it would allow the district to focus future growth in that part of town, so that it can be consolidated in a campus like environment,” said Roach. “We have heard people say as we think to the future, we should consider property that in 50 years could even house a new high school. Currently, we have a high school that is solid and will meet the needs of the district for several years to come but our charge is to be certain there is a plan in place so that if the need arises, they have that location. With Griffith there and the middle school across the street, it would simplify transportation for parents.”
Another opponent to the project disagrees with the idea of moving students to the area around Griffith.
“I believe in small neighborhood schools,” said Keith Ellis. “I don’t believe in busing 10-year-olds to the south side school on Business 50. From the public meetings I’ve attended, they want to remove a so-called stigma where we need to get our young people out of the west end and into a so-called better part of town. That type of bigotry is not a good reason to build a school.”
School officials maintain that while their original thoughts may have been about fixing overcrowding in the elementaries, the final result of a middle school that will open space for all children in the school corporation appears to be part of a better long-range answer that the public requested.
“This is a pure example of consensus at work,” said Roach. “We started the discussion with the overcrowding at the elementary level and the board has been very effective at listening to the public comments and trying to come up with a compromise and that’s how we wound up with the middle school concept. It has evolved into more than a quick fix in that we are trying to plan for the next several decades.”
It is the lack of planning in the past that also has Ellis opposing the project.
“We did this about 10 years ago,” said Ellis. “That was about a $25 million deal. The school board said they would fix the junior-senior high. Now, they are doubling down to once again fix the junior high. They do not have the track record for us to believe they are going to fix the junior high. The grade five through eight notion is not highly considered, so it’s not a very good idea.”
With Jasper wrapping up a construction project, Vincennes finishing a project and Barr-Reeve in the middle of an expansion, some critics might contend the building project proposal is a case of trying to keep up with those neighboring schools. That’s something officials deny.
“This is not keeping up with the Joneses,” said Roach. “The state economic development commission has looked at long -planning and growth for this part of Indiana and Daviess County is anticipated to be one of four areas over the next several years to experience growth. We need to be certain we are placing this district in a situation where we will be able to provide the best education for these kids. Our kids should have the opportunity to meet the needs of a changing world.”
“When business and industry looks to relocate, one of the top things on their list is schools,” added Omer. “Right now, there is no room for growth. The plan with the middle school will open the way for a 20% growth for the entire school system. We know by our location we are in a positive position for growth. This will help us be ready for it.”
Still, everyone doesn’t agree.
“I’m in favor of good ideas that make our neighborhoods stronger — parks and sidewalks and bike paths,” said Ellis. “Schools make a neighborhood stronger. If you want to weaken the neighborhood, remove all of the kids from the school. Most new families move into the west end and most new families tend to have children. So, the children are being raised on the west end of town, but they want for some reason to bus them to a pretty school to justify sending all of our kids over there. Sounds like some pretty weak reasoning.”
Assessed Valuation growing
Proponents of the building project note that the school has seen regular growth in its assessed valuation. Over the last five years it has increased 10.38% and over the last 10 years, 20.68%.
If past performances indicate future results, the growth in the AV could have a significant impact on the debt tax rate generated by the school construction, but officials say there are other things happening in the budget that could also help drive down the long-term effect on taxpayers.
“This will be on top of the current debt rate,” said Alford. “As current debt falls off, the overall tax rate will go down. We don’t have a large amount of debt coming off over the next couple of years. We do have small bonds that will be coming off over several years that will reduce the overall tax debt levy.”
Currently, Washington has six bonds that will be dropping off the tax rolls in 2020, 2022, 2023, 2025, 2029 and 2030. Those would remove more than $50 million in established debt.
If the school referendum is approved the project will be paid off in 2039.
All precincts voting on question
All of the Washington precincts are voting on the question. Washington 1, 2, 3, 4, and Harrison and Veale Township that normally do not vote during municipal elections will have open polls. Veale Township has relocated its polling place from Camp Illiana to Bethel Church South.
Registered voters in all of the Washington precincts, Veale and Harrison townships can also vote early at the Daviess County Clerk’s Office from now until noon Nov. 4. The office is open to voters from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. It will also be open Saturdays, Oct. 26 and Nov. 2 from 8 a.m. to noon.