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Taxpayers to vote on funding question in referendum

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Four is the new five.

That’s the mantra Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. educators hope taxpayers will remember when they go to the polls in November.

School board members on Monday will consider seeking a November ballot question asking voters to approve a tax increase to fund prekindergarten for the school corporation’s neediest students for the next seven years.

The referendum would ask taxpayers to approve an increase of 5 cents per $100 assessed valuation to the school corporation’s tax rate, currently at 87 cents per $100 assessed valuation.

With the increase, a taxpayer with a home assessed at $100,000 would pay an additional $16 a year if the taxpayer took standard deductions and exemptions.

A taxpayer with a house assessed at $150,000 would pay about $32 more a year with the deductions and exemptions. At the end of seven years, the increase would be taken off the tax rate.

The tax rate increase would generate $1.8 million annually to pay for full-time prekindergarten for the estimated 450 students a year who can’t afford the educational opportunities available through private preschools or tuition-based public preschools. Students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch will be eligible for a scholarship.

If taxpayers approve the measure, it would become effective for the 2015-16 school year.

The prekindergarten program would be offered in 11 BCSC neighborhood schools, and students would be able to stay in the same school as they enter kindergarten.

An identical referendum for the district failed in the November 2012 election by about 1,700 votes, or 46 percent to 54 percent.

But Superintendent John Quick thinks the outcome this time will be different.

A new state law passed this year allows districts some freedom in the wording of the question on the ballot, and Quick said there’s also a new buzz surrounding prekindergarten.

“We were not successful, in part, we think, because the question was not understood by the voters,” he said. “At least this time, we can have a question where the debate is about funding prekindergarten and not just about raising taxes.”

Eliminating confusion

Kathy Oren is executive director of the Community Education Coalition now, but when she went to the polls in 2012 she was just an education advocate.

“I went to the booth to vote for it, but I didn’t see the question,” she said.

She saw one about tax increases, but she wasn’t sure if it was the same one she had been hearing about in the news that would partially fund prekindergarten.

Quick said poll workers and other voters waiting in line were not much help. They’d just say, “The school district wants to raise your taxes.”

That confusion won’t exist this year if the school board decides to seek the tax increase.

Senate Bill 207 amended the law governing school referendums, shortening the amount of time a district must wait before introducing a new referendum and allowing districts to explain how the tax increase proceeds would be used.

The new question includes a phrase at the end that specifies the tax hike would be “for funding prekindergarten for 4-year-olds on lunch assistance,” although the final wording is at the discretion of the local election board.

There may be a new challenge for the district at the polls this year, though — voter turnout.

The last referendum aligned with several hotly contested races, including the presidential election. Bartholomew County experienced long lines at the polls, and some voters left without casting ballots because the lines were so long.

A concern this year is that many local races will be largely decided in the primary, meaning the casual voter is less likely to show up in November.

It will be up to a political action committee to campaign for votes for the tax increase and promote the passage of the referendum with yard signs, postcard-style mailings and word-of-mouth communications, Quick said.

He said there’s also a nationwide conversation about the benefits of prekindergarten that could help drive voters to the polls in November.

It’s a conversation BCSC has been leading in the state.

Gov. Mike Pence told Quick that Busy Bees Academy was his inspiration for a new state law that will provide prekindergarten funding to five counties as a pilot program — and it’s one that is driven by data.

Signs of success

More than a quarter of all students entering kindergarten in BCSC last fall were not prepared, but Director of Elementary Education Teresa Heiny found some promising results in the data.

Students coming from a BCSC prekindergarten program were 20 percent more likely to meet kindergarten expectations.

Those are students who have enrolled in the Busy Bees Academy, which allows disadvantaged students to attend prekindergarten through a lottery system, and Title I programs at 10 other schools.

But funding for the scholarships, which started in 2010, ends next year.

“If we don’t find a solution financially, Busy Bees is at risk,” Oren said.

And she said there’s plenty of evidence-based data to illustrate the loss.

Students are 30 percent more likely to graduate if they started school in prekindergarten, for example.

And as prekindergarten director Cathne Holliday has discovered, prekindergarten helps with socialization.

“It’s so important to have that socialization aspect for teams, groups and jobs,” she said.

Board member Rich Stenner said most efforts have been focused on pathways for high school students, but educators need to catch students early for there to be a change.

“If our taxpayers are happy with an 85 percent graduation rate, our system is working now,” he said. “But what about the other kids?”

Quick said the other kids are typically from economically disadvantaged families.

“Prekindergarten is about removing obstacles for those kids so they come into kindergarten on an equal playing field,” he said. “The rising tide lifts all boats.”

Pre-K 4 All

The district has preliminary branded its push for public prekindergarten funding, “Pre-K 4 All” — not “Public Pre-K 4 All.”

“Some of those folks have options to go to private pre-K, and we hope they do,” Quick said. “We don’t care whether you go to private pre-K or public pre-K, we just want to get kids in the door. The kids that aren’t getting in the doors are the kids who can’t afford it.”

Supporters of the 2012 referendum had worked with private and parochial schools to ensure access to prekindergarten increased without undermining enrollment at private and parochial schools.

BCSC had mechanisms in place that if the referendum passed, free morning and evening transportation would have been offered to all students who go to private preschools. Scholarships would have been offered to two economically disadvantaged children attending a private prekindergarten program for each paying child at Busy Bees.

Quick said that discussion will likely be renewed as the November election approaches.

The Community Education Coalition and the Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County had also pledged $100,000 per year for seven years to provide scholarships to private prekindergarten programs — but the money was contingent on the 2012 referendum passing.

Oren said she knows the Heritage Fund is interested in supporting choice and access in prekindergarten access, but she’s not sure what funds will be available next year or how they would be distributed.

A long-term investment

Quick said economists are leading the conversation about early childhood education even more than educators — and they’re promising a high return on investment.

Every $1 spent on early childhood education is $7.16 in tax dollars saved by the time those children reach the age of 27, according to the HighScope Perry Preschool Study.

Based on that estimate, a $1.8 annual investment in BCSC would result in $12.89 million tax dollars saved after about 20 years.

The savings come from higher earnings, reduced need for special education, welfare assistance and reduced crime, according to the report.

Quick said it’s an affordable investment.

Bartholomew County is lucky to have a large tax base, which has kept the school’s portion of the tax rate well below the state average. And the overall school tax rate is still lower if the additional five cents per $100 assessed valuation is added to the tax rate, he said.

“We’re not trying to be unreasonable,” he said.

The state average school tax rate is $1.05 per $100 of assessed value, and the current BCSC rate is $0.87 cents per $100. An increase to $0.92 cents per $100 of assessed value would still be more than 20 cents less than the state average, Quick said.

The investment in prekindergarten for income-eligible students will be about $4,000 per student per year — less than the approximately $5,500 per student BCSC receives from the state for Grades 1 through 12.

An investment in prekindergarten is also an investment in the community, Quick said.

Cummins brings international families to the school district, many of which are accustomed to school beginning at age 4.

“It’s a recruiting tool for our companies,” he said. “They can say, ‘There are good prekindergarten options, including public ones, in this community.”

He said he encourages taxpayers to ask themselves whether they want to pay some now or more later.

“Would you rather pay $40,000 for one person in jail, or pay to send 10 kids to prekindergarten?” Quick asked. “Doesn’t it make sense?”

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