Schools in Lake County forced to make tough decisions after losing referendum votes
Five of the 12 school referendums in Indiana were rejected by voters during Tuesday’s general election. The Lake County schools whose referendums failed will likely face cuts as a result.
Tom Cripliver, superintendent at Lake Station Community School Corporation, said he hoped an operating referendum could net his schools an additional $1.3 million. However, voters said no.
“We are very lean now, so any cuts that we make are going to be felt by our students, by our staff and by our community,” he said.
Lake Station successfully won their funding referendum in November 2017 after failing in 2015. The referendum that failed Tuesday was a renewal of the 2017 tax levy.
Schools can lose out on millions of tax dollars when referendums are rejected. Districts in Lake County made it clear that during this week’s general election, they had a lot to lose.
The School City of Whiting is another district that lost its referendum. The district estimates that legislative changes have cost it more than $3 million since 2018, and it hoped to recoup about $1 million from its most recent referendum attempt.
“School City of Whiting is not alone,” the district’s website said. “Out of 16 public school districts in Lake County, Indiana, all 16 have either passed operating referendums, failed, or intend to pursue referendums in order to survive.”
Following the November 2023 election, 51.2 percent of school districts in the state have not placed school referenda on ballots.
The district’s website said without that money, class sizes will increase and the school will lose teachers, summer programs, technology, field trips and possibly local control of the district.
Cripliver said his district in Lake County will face tough choices once it runs out of funding from its 2017 referendum. Some of the money funded school counselors who help students with the impacts of the pandemic and recent economic stress.
“That's something we were very proud of that we were able to offer because of our previous referendum,” Cripliver said.
He said the counselors have been incredibly helpful to students, especially when it comes to social interactions and adjusting to a normal school environment after e-learning. Next year, the district might not be able to retain those counselors.
“When our referendum funds do run out at the end of 2024, those will be things that we'll have to seriously consider,” Cripliver said. “There's a very strong possibility that they will be cut.”
Counseling is not the only area at Lake Station that will be affected by budget cuts. Cripliver said transportation could also see significant cuts. A plan submitted to the state on how referendum money would be spent showed that the district would have used more than $466,000 on school bus transportation.
Lake Station also planned to invest nearly $333,000 to maintain and expand academic programs and $333,000 to recruit and retain teachers. Instead of filling vacant positions, the district could be looking at cutting teachers and support staff.
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Cripliver said administrative staff and the school board will begin meeting immediately to find areas where the district could save more money. He can’t say for sure which areas will be most heavily impacted, but he said the goal is to cause as little disruption to students as possible.
“How can we cut to $1.3 million on a budget with minimal impact on students? That's really the ultimate goal, and that's what we will start looking at right away,” he said.
However, he suspects there will still be a negative impact on Lake Station’s students.
“Our students are the ones that right now will be taking the brunt of this loss,” he said.