Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Noblesville Schools Referendum: A Matter of Responsibility

Noblesville voters are faced with some tough decisions as the May 4th primary vote approaches. There will be two school funding referendums on the ballot that, if approved would increase property taxes.

Nobody wants to pay higher taxes, but if we want to live in a first class community, we need to vote yes.

The arguments I’m hearing against approving this tax increase oversimplify our traditional moral mindset regarding education and trivialize our responsibilities as citizens.

When Times are Tough

Folks like to say, “When times are tough families have to tighten their belts, so schools should have to tighten their belts, too”

Noblesville Schools have tightened their belt, to the tune of $4.6 million in the past year. The 2010 budget is lower than it was in ‘07 yet student enrollment has increased by 700 pupils. That means overcrowded classrooms and fewer educational programs.

There’s another thing families do when times are tough; they dig deep and take care of their own. In my day job as a Realtor I’ve encountered many families who have stepped in to help a family member struggling in these tough times.

As a community, the schools are our own. And as our schools go, so will go our community.

A Matter of Personal Responsibility

It might seem like a needed dose of tough love to vote down the referendum, but we’ve got to be careful we’re not all “tough” and no “love.” Getting that balance right is a matter of accepting personal responsibility.

Folks like to say, “Those tax dollars are my money.” While that’s of course true, who owns long-term public financial responsibilities – like the responsibilty to fund schools?

We do.

That’s true for any town, but the responsibility to make sure Noblesville’s kids get the best education they can goes deeper for Noblesville voters. One of the reasons our schools need more money is because of a dramatic increase in students. And those students and their families are here because we invited them.

Think you didn’t? Think again.

If over the past 20 years you voted for multiple Noblesville Common Council candidates who won, then the overwhelming odds are that you repeatedly voted for council members who approved huge waves of residential growth.

Consider the approval of the Noble West subdivision on our southwest side. If you voted for the council members who approved Noble West back in 2002 you put people in power that approved a subdivision the size of the town of Sheridan. It required the building of an entirely new elementary school, which we all paid for, and sent a new wave of children into our higher grade levels. Just one lonely councilman, Alan Hinds, voted against it.

People I interviewed within the school system a couple years back told me City officials never once asked them if they could handle the extra students.

That’s just one subdivision and one council. Time and again, election after election, Noblesville voters elected and reelected not just pro-growth candidates, but pro-unlimited growth candidates.

Noblesville voters knowingly and repeatedly participated in a rapid growth policy that brought hundreds of new students each year to our school system. How can we repeatedly vote to be a big-growth town and then vote against paying for the consequences?

Take a look at Zionsville. They could have been a big-growth town. They had builders and developers banging on their door. But their community leaders took action over the past decade to moderate the pace of growth. Though now facing similar budget shortfall issues as Noblesville, their school system’s enrollment isn’t increasing as fast as ours – because they didn’t grow as fast, therefore the measures required to bridge the budget gap are not so severe.

Somebody once told me, “All growth ever did was make Noblesville rich.” That’s not true. Choosing to be a big-growth town also came at a price. One of those bills is due now. The large numbers of new people who came here in the past decade or more are a part of our community. Their children, our children and grandchildren and our neighbor’s children all need a quality education.

My purpose isn’t to blame newcomers, it’s to emphasize that this is our responsibility as a community. We chose the circumstances that created May’s referendums.

Our ever-larger school enrollment, unlike all the things we bought or borrowed when we were riding high, cannot be resold or let go now that things are tough. There’s no chance of reworking or refinancing or walking away like you might from a house you can no longer afford. There’s no bailing out. We have to see this through. It’s our responsibility.

I want to live in the sort of town that’s willing to accept that responsibility, not just enough to get by, but in an A+ manner. Noblesville has always been that kind of town in the past.

So much so in fact, the quality of our schools is one of the big reasons we’ve won so much national attention in recent years as a great place to live. The outcome of the school funding referendums this May will decide whether or not we make anyone’s list of best places to live a year from now.

Next week I’ll take a little deeper look at the referendum and it’s costs, and how the state’s new property tax law leaves us overcharging those least able to afford it.

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