District considers improvements to attract families

Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald


DUBOIS — The Northeast Dubois School Board continued its discussion of the corporation’s future Tuesday night at the first of three public work sessions.

The work sessions are the latest step as the corporation plans for facilities projects made possible by about $3 million worth of construction bonds being paid off. Several topics came up in the discussion, though the focus became ramping up STEM — science, engineering, technology and math — offerings, increasing vocational offerings and school safety. “We need to encourage and build a corporation that people want to live in,” said board member Bernie Knies.

Cosmetic work for Northeast Dubois High School, offering an after-school program, growing the preschool program and athletics and extracurricular offerings were also discussed.

The work sessions continue conversations started during a needs study by George Link with VPS Architecture of Evansville. During his study, Link talked to the schools’ staff and the community about the corporation’s needs so he could make recommendations to the board about how best to use the available $3 million.

In his recommendations, Link suggested using the $3 million to renovate the career and tech classrooms and science labs at the high school and the family and consumer science classroom at Dubois Middle School, turning it into multiple classrooms. Link estimated those renovations at $3.1 million.

In his study, Link also looked further into the corporation’s future. There, Link recommended moving the fourth grade to the middle school beginning with the 2019-20 year. Then, for the 2020-21 school year, Link recommended moving all the elementary students to Dubois Elementary and closing the Celestine Elementary. Although many community members seemed surprised to hear the recommendation to close Celestine, it came as no surprise to Board President Mary Pankey.

“I’ll say it,” she said. “It won’t be popular, but we’ve delayed with keeping four schools as long as we can.”

Pankey said she’s been on the board through three superintendents, all of whom said the corporation could not afford to operate four school buildings. For years, the corporation has been losing funding due to falling enrollment.

In Indiana, school funding comes from local property taxes — which go into the operations and debt service funds — and the state, which funds the education fund, formerly called the general fund. State funding is based on student enrollment and goes only toward expenses related to educating students, with the bulk of that going toward teacher salaries and benefits. The state gives schools so much money per student, with the amount varying based on several factors, including special needs and poverty, but the average is between $5,000 and $6,000 per student.

Superintendent Bill Hochgesang said the corporation receives the 11th least per student in the state of Indiana, mostly because the corporation does not have many special-needs or poverty-stricken students.

In 2016, the corporation passed a general fund property tax referendum to augment state funding for seven years. That action gave the corporation time to plan for the future and led to Link’s initial study and the work sessions the board is now holding.

The hope is that the improvements will attract more families to the area, as an enrollment increase would alleviate the corporation’s financial struggles.

While major changes are in the future for Northeast Dubois, including the possible reconfiguration of buildings and the possible closure of Celestine Elementary, the board doesn’t expect to make changes as quickly as Link recommended. Several times during Tuesday’s discussion, board members talked about the desire to take the time to make a plan and ensure that when major changes are made, the transitions can be smooth for everyone involved.

“I think it helps with community support, knowing we have more time,” Pankey said. “I think some people were feeling rushed.”

The possibility of borrowing more than $3 million to complete a more comprehensive project also came up, with a few board members saying they’d received public comments that would support that action.

“We need to look at the corporation’s needs, then ask bond counsel what we need to do to get there,” board member John Siebert said.

Even with the public comments, board members are hesitant to take an action that would increase property taxes again so soon after the general fund referendum. Not taking on any additional debt, however, would result in a lower tax rate that would then jump back up the next time the corporation took on debt for building projects. In general, school corporations keep their debt load steady so that they can keep a steady property tax rate for taxpayers.

Currently, Northeast Dubois’ tax rate is $0.93 per $100 of assessed value, the lowest rate of all four school corporations in Dubois County.

Going forward, the board plans to hold two additional work sessions and to create a public survey. The survey will include questions about another property tax increase.

The next work session is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4, at the Dubois Middle School multipurpose room, 4550 N. 4th St., Dubois. The third work session has not yet been scheduled.

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