Small town beats odds, passes school referendum

Search the internet for Austin, Indiana, and you’ll find dozens of stories about drug abuse, HIV and Gov. Mike Pence’s belated declaration of a public health emergency. Here’s some good news from Austin. Last week, residents of this hard-hit Southern Indiana town bucked the odds and voted to increase their own property taxes to benefit local schools.

“The town really values the schools. They always have,” said Trevor Jones, superintendent of the local school district, Scott County District No. 1. “We’ve had a lot of issues in Austin the last five or six years, but the schools have been a real bright spot for this community.”

Fifty-five percent of voters favored the school funding referendum, which authorizes the district to spend up to $20 million to build a new elementary school, convert an out-of-use swimming pool to a multi-purpose room, and replace the roof on the high school. The project could increase local property taxes by as much as 90 cents per $100 assessed property value – by far the largest increase among the 13 Indiana school referendums on the November 2019 ballot.

“I think the people understood,” Jones said. “This is very student-driven. Our students deserve and need better facilities.”

Across the state, schools had limited success last week with their referendums. Only seven of 13 were approved, the lowest success rate since 2014. Voters approved three of six referendums for construction projects and four of seven for increased operating funds.

Indiana school funding has relied increasingly on local referendums for the past decade, giving a leg up to affluent suburban schools that can raise lots of money with a minimal tax-rate increase. Austin is not one of those. Two-thirds of the school district’s 1,200 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The town’s poverty rate is 25%, almost twice the state average.

Then there was the HIV outbreak of a few years ago, resulting when people shared needles to inject drugs. A former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Austin had a higher incidence of HIV than any country in sub-Saharan Africa.

There’s evidence the town is recovering, and support for the local schools is a good sign. School board meetings were streamed on Facebook, and referendum supporters formed a political action committee to share information. They explained the need for the building project: The current Austin Elementary School was built in the 1930s and 1950s, and replacing it will improve comfort, efficiency and security.

There was no organized opposition, and supporters emphasized that the worst of the tax increase would be temporary. The district is scheduled to retire its current construction debt in 2023 and 2026, at which time the property tax rate will decline.

“We wanted to be very transparent with the figures,” Jones said, “but we also wanted to make sure everybody understood the tax impact would be falling off in the next few years.

Jones said construction is expected to take about two years.

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