Up, Up, and Away…. School Tax Increases Continue After Major Referendum

In 2016 a referendum was passed for Hamilton Southeastern Schools, so it was not surprise to see an increase in property taxes for 2017. In fact, taxes increased by 11.23% from 2016 to 2017 as a result of the referendum. What might surprise you is that tax increases didn’t stop in 2017 with the big referendum. In 2018, the tax rate has increased again by almost another percentage point to a total rate of 1.274.

What should raise a few eyebrows on this continued upward trend for taxes is the fact that the Indiana state government also made changes to school fund allocations recently. The state changes adjusted school allocations so that they would be more balanced. In the case of HSE Schools, this meant that the per student funding increased. The result was more state dollars were coming to our schools.

The net is that the HSE School coffers in 2017 benefited by more tax dollars at both the state and local levels. As the school board continues to increase taxes through referendums, you should be watching and asking why that is needed as well as watching how the millions of additional dollars are being spent. After all, in 2016 the HSE community was told that 100s of staff members could be laid off if a referendum wasn’t passed. In 2017, after passing the referendum, an unplanned multi-million dollar renovation to the administration building was approved and moved to the front of the capital improvements list. That’s a big change in a very short time.

Spending in Our Schools: Hamilton Southeastern

At the October 26th HSE School board meeting, yet another bond was approved. As an outsider looking into the process of decisions being made by both our schools and our local city officials, it seems scary and concerning the amount of money that is continually approved that comes from the taxpayers – that comes from us. In seeing it from the outside, it looks like we, the community, are being nickeled and dimed for a lot of money. It is easy to overlook this because the money appears to be going to our schools; however, that would be a bit fiscally irresponsible.

Within HSE this year alone, there was a referendum passed, a ten million dollar bond, and most recently a $5.5 million bond as well. This is on top of the property taxes we are already paying that go to the city and then partially come back to our schools as well. For those living in Fishers, there is the additional move to bump up the tax rate as well as the new $25 wheel tax.

While each of these individually don’t seem like much, when a person starts watching and listening, it can become concerning that large amounts of money are being shifted around without a lot of oversight by the community.

The question becomes – is this an issue?

In many cases, the answers I’ve gotten when asking questions around school and city financials have made sense. For example, with what was described as an annual $10 million dollar bond the school does, there  is no increase in taxes to the community because at the same time the new bond is starting, an old bond is ending. The net result is that the pull from the community wallets remains the same. With the $5.5 million dollars that was approved at the October 26th meeting (2016), the money will be covered by refinancing existing debt at a lower interest rate. As such, your money that would have been used to pay interest on school debt will be redirected to pay this $5.5 million resulting again in no increase in taxes to the community, but rather just shifting where the money they were already taking will go.

When asked why the school system couldn’t simply reduce the burden to the community instead of keeping the savings, the answer was that no new increase was happening. While this didn’t really answer the question of reducing the tax burden, an additional comment was made that by retaining the money, the school system is able to fund tasks earlier. Spending that was planned to would occur in 2017 could now be done in 2016. This would open up more budget dollars in 2017.

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Thank You

I want to take a minute to say thank you to not only the 5,627 individuals that took the time to vote for me for the HSE school board position, but to all the people who took time to vote for anyone on the school board. The impact that the board will have on our taxes, our community, and even our families can be larger than the impact of positions at the state and national level. As such, it is good to see that over 35,000 people took time to vote for candidates.

I’ve been asked by a couple of people if I’ll continue to be involved. For those that know me, they’d see that as a silly question. I was involved in our schools and in attending board meeting prior to any consideration of running for the board. This is my town, these are my schools, many of you are my friends and neighbors, so of course I’ll continue to do what I do – I’ll continue to be involved in both the schools and the community.

I want to congratulate all of the school board candidates that ran as well as those that won. Each candidate deserves a huge congratulations for stepping up and drawing more attention to our schools and our kids. I personally want to thank each for taking their time as well as time from their families to run and to draw attention to important issues. I believe our schools will be better going forward as a result of their actions. So, thank you.

Our schools are great.

The election is over, but there are still questions around fiscal responsibility, we still have to find ways to retain our good teachers, we still need to continue to recognize each student individually to help them succeed, we still need to support the mental health programs, we still have to make sure our schools stay safe and usable for the long term, and we still have to remember it is all about the kids. While the board can make policies and procedures, it will take the community to make it all happen.

I look forward to being a part of the HSE community that makes it all happen.

Live Streaming the HSE School Board Meetings

One of the ways I find that I differ from the other candidates is that I haven’t waited to see if I get elected before trying to address issues that are important. I have been attending board meetings, asking questions, and pushing for change well before my name was filed to run for a school board position.

Simply put, the issues don’t wait for elections.

This year alone, HSE has had a referendum discussed, a roll-out of the iPads in the elementary schools, two bonds approved (totally around $15.5 million above and beyond the referendum and state money), issues with technology, changes to school policies and handbooks, continued loss of good teachers, and a multitude of other topics. In the case of the ten million dollar bond passed earlier this year, I was one of the few people to stand and ask a question about its purpose. Similarly, in this last school board meeting, I was the only candidate that was not an incumbent to raise a question about the spending. I’ve asked the administrators, school tech lead, and board members questions on other topics as well. These range from discussions on why open standard tech wasn’t used to why there was a push to eliminate paper magazine subscriptions in the elementary schools.

On topic I’ve questioned has come up a few times by other candidates. This is the topic of live streaming HSE School Board meetings.

In early July, I created a page on Facebook specifically for streaming the HSE school board meetings. While board meetings are “meetings in public”, out of consideration, I asked Dr. Bourff if I could live stream and record the meetings. I stated that I would take care of the recording, streaming, and any editing with the target media source being a live stream on a Facebook page. There would be no need for any effort by the school board or administration.

The idea of streaming the meetings is not a new one, and one that it was clear Dr. Bourff had already considered. As such, Dr. Bourff was able to provide insights toward the downside of streaming school board meetings.

By filming a meeting, there was a real concern that the level of discussion by members of the board could decrease. With a camera rolling, it would be clear that their questions and words were being caught on film. Statements that were made could be viewed differently than they intended. This could diminish discussions, and thus negatively impact results. For example, a board member might choose to avoid asking for clarification so they wouldn’t seem to lack knowledge on a topic. Because it is critical to keep the discussion free flowing among the board members, having to worry about a rolling camera could be a detriment. Having been to a large number of board meetings as an audience member, there have been a few meetings where the limited knowledge around technology was hard to watch. Had the board members been recorded, it truly could have not reflected the best on a couple of them.

Live streaming also has the potential to cause grandstanding by members of the community. While this sounds easy to control, I have facilitated a number of live online events as well as meet-ups. As such, I understand how grandstanding is actually a very serious concern.

The opposite of grandstanding is also an issue. A number of people have attended board meetings to present on topics that were sensitive, and yet very valid concerns. In a few of these cases, I do believe that the presenters might have avoided making their comments if they knew it was being recorded and streamed live.

There are other issues with streaming as well.

The reality is, school board meetings are held in public. As such, there is nothing that prevents a person from streaming the events now. Live streaming has become so simple that nearly anyone can do it with a smartphone and a Facebook account.

At this time, I have not pushed to stream the board meetings even though they are open to the public. There are two core reasons for this. First is to respect Dr. Bourff’s request to not cause the disruption in the board meetings. Second, and more importantly, not enough people have indicated they care or would watch a live stream. While streaming sounds like a great idea, when Dr. Bourff streamed an event earlier this year related to the referendum, the engagement was also extremely low. Having experience with live chats and streamed events online has often shown the same results.

While there are people that would watch the stream or an on-demand versions of the board meetings, the level of active interest just isn’t there to justify pushing against Dr. Bourff’s statements at this time. I’ve raised the topic, and over time will bring it forward again whether elected or not. I believe that recordings will eventually happen, but until there is real proactive demand by the community with a real commitment to view, I find that my own attention and time are better spent on topics such as spending, academics, and the well-being of our students.

Let’s Help our Neighbors in Hamilton County Today

There are times when people simply need a little bit of help. It is common knowledge that you should save enough money to cover at least two months of expenses in case of an emergency. Unfortunately, even in more affluent areas like Hamilton County here in central Indiana, there are a lot of people who are barely surviving from paycheck-to-paycheck. Many of these people don’t have the luxury of saving two months. Rather, they are doing everything they can to simply pay the rent and buy what groceries they can to make it through the current week. When something unexpected happens to these folks, reality becomes very hard. In many cases, it means not paying bills or not eating.

This is happening even here in Hamilton County. Noblesville, Carmel, Fishers, and the other towns are not immune to people who are wondering how they are going to keep a roof over their head or buy food for their kids. Fortunately, the percentage of people that run into this situation are a lot lower than other parts of Indiana and other parts of the country. Even so, a tiny poverty rate still can mean hundreds or thousands of people. As such, some of our neighbors are in the position of not knowing how they are going to make ends meet. For Fishers, a low, low poverty rate of 1.8% still equates to over 1500 people considered “in poverty”. Even beyond that, we have people who have lost jobs, or had unforeseen circumstances that have impacted their financial stability.

There are a number of organizations in Hamilton County that help provide various services. We have 40 food banks/pantries and other organizations that do what they can. One of the organizations that I hope you are familiar with is Good Samaritan Network (GSN). This is an organization that has worked to connect the various charitable organizations across Hamilton County to help with a more coordinated effort in helping our neighbors in need. GSN is most known at Christmas when they host an event in Noblesville to provide toys, clothes, and food to families in the county.

While GSN is very visible at Christmas time, they are active from their office in Fishers year round. They provide services and items to families in need. One of the programs they offer is financial assistance to those families that do hit a crisis where they are in desperate need. This “client assistance” program uses funds that donated by organizations as well as by the community – people like you and me – to help people who are under-served by some of the other organizations within Hamilton County.

You can check out a couple of stories on the GSN site regarding stories of people they have helped. This includes helping a family with unexpected medical bills, but also helping a young man struggling to be able to make it to his two jobs so he could keep his life on track. In the case of this young man, they were able to connect him with an elderly person who also needed help.

GSN tries to keep a store of funds in place to help in these situations where one of our neighbors could benefit by a quick kick in help. GSN refers to this help as a ‘hand up’ in that these people just need a little help to stay on track or get back on track.

My Call to Action for You!

In that regard, Good Samaritan Network is doing a fundraising drive right now. They are trying to raise $20,000 by the end of May. Their goal is $650 a day for each of the remaining days of the month. In these last few weeks of political campaigns, it is worth stating that this is not money that will help get a politician re-elected in Washington or to stop the drought in California. Rather, this is money that will be used to help our neighbors – the people right here in our community. These are neighbors you and I might never see. Or these might actually be people we see but are totally unaware of their need. Either way, these are our neighbors. These are neighbors that GSN can help. These are neighbors we can help through GSN.

For those of you reading this in Hamilton County, including my friends here in Fishers and Carmel, I ask that for the rest of this month, you simply collect your change. Drop it in a bowl. At the end of the month either drop it off at the GSN office or make a donation for the amount on their website. That’s a nearly-no effort act you can do to help our neighbors. For those of you that can, I ask that you consider doing a little more. Every little bit adds up. Every little bit can help.

If you want to donate right now, you can find a link on the GSN site. You can also mail or drop off donations.

Link to GSN page on this fundraiser:  http://www.gsnlive.org/#!fundraising/c19t8
Link to GSN site: http://www.gsnlive.org/

For those of you outside of Hamilton County, please consider the organizations around you that are helping your own neighbors. Let’s help our neighbors.

As a note – GSN does not know I’m writing or posting this. This post is from me, your neighbor, asking you to join in helping our other neighbors.

A Substantiated Stat: Homelessness in Hamilton County

I often see people throw out statements on Facebook and other social platforms that sound good, but leave me wondering if they are true. They throw these statements into the conversation to support their stance on a topic. Many times when I ask for the source of these claims, things tend to go silent.

Some numbers shouldn’t be casually toss around. This was the case this past week when a person tossed out a statement regarding the number of homeless people in Hamilton County. If there is one homeless person there is too many. Regardless of how many there are, tossing around unsubstantiated comment about the number of homeless in order to support other arguments borders on tacky.

On the positive side, the comment did prompt me to take a look at what information I could find on the number of homeless in Hamilton County. If homelessness truly had increased as this person stated, then that would be a serious issue.

What I quickly learned is that there are numbers available that can give you an idea of the level homelessness. These numbers come from the Indiana Housing & Community Development Authority (ihcda.in.gov). They provide a snapshot of the number of homeless on a given point in time. While this number can change on a daily basis, the number does provide a snapshot into the situation.

The IHCDA Point-in-Time (PiT) report breaks out numbers by regions. Hamilton County (Indiana) is actually Region 8 in their reporting. In looking at the reports, it is easy to compare 1/29/2014 to 1/29/2015 to see if homeless did increase in Hamilton County.

What you will find from the numbers is that homeless actually appears to have dropped:

2014 2015
Number of Households 20 7
Number of persons under 18 1 5
Number of persons 18-24 4 0
Number of persons over 24 21 8

 

As can be seen by these statistics, the number of households did not drastically increase, but istead, it is less than half of what was seen in 2014. The number of individuals also dropped in half going from totals of 26 down to 13. Unfortunately, the impact on children jumped up on this date in 2015.

If you are in a different county in Indiana, you might be interested in the numbers for your area. You can find the stats at

www.indianabos.org

If you click on the Continuum of Care tab, you’ll be able to find the PiT information for all regions of Indiana.

Conclusion

To summarize this blog post, you should now throw out statements on social media that you cannot substantiate, especially when they are on topics as substantial as homelessness. There is definitely homelessness in Indiana and in Hamilton County. Fortunately, based on Point-in-Time data, it appears that 2015 could be better than 2014 as far as the number of homeless. I say this cautiously, however, because the PiT numbers don’t take into consideration every situation, nor do they show what is happening day-by-day. Of course, I stand by my earlier statement, one homeless person is too many.