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South Bend voters set to decide on $210 million school district referendum

NOW: South Bend voters set to decide on $210 million school district referendum

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - It's been a month since Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb announced the coronavirus pandemic had forced the state to delay its primary. That election is now set for Tuesday. The month delay gave both sides of the South Bend Community School Corporation (SBCSC) referendum time to pick up momentum.

SBCSC Chief Financial Officer Kareemah Fowler said the delay proved just how vital the vote is for South Bend.

"Even when you think about what we had to do with food," Fowler said. "Unless you know how much of an impact the South Bend School Corporation is to the community, and I'll be honest with you, I knew, but I didn't know to the tune until COVID hit and the things that we had to do for our families."

The referendum is set up in two parts. Part one is a one-time sum of $54 million for capital projects like building maintenance and adding more secure entrances to schools.

Part two covers operational costs with $20.8 million a year for eight years. That money would raise teacher salaries, add social workers and counselors to schools and subject-specific experts at the high schools.

SBCSC Superintendent Todd Cummings said he and other district leaders believe that impact will be enough to convince voters to say yes on Tuesday.

"We're asking folks to come out and support South Bend Schools, to raise teacher salaries, to ensure our buildings are safe and secure and to make sure that all of our students are college and workforce ready," Cummings said.

Opposition to the referendum has also increased during the month-long delay of the vote.

Votenosouthbend.com is a website opponents of the referendum used to lay out facts and figures as reasons to vote against the referendum.

The site showed SBCSC as the highest funded district per student in St. Joseph County, but South Bend Vote Yes Political Action Committee Co-Chair Mary Downes said those numbers are misleading because SBCSC has more impoverished students, and therefore, gets more financial help for them. Vote No South Bend Organizer Larry Garatoni said the timing is not right for a referendum.

"What I'd like to see happen is this referendum gets defeated," Garatoni said. "Then, they can come back in a year for another referendum, and during that year's period of time, they can tell us what they are going to do and they can even start getting some of these things done, and in that year, if they do these things, they'll have a lot more credibility, and if it's a reasonable plan that has some signs of success, I'd be happy to support it at that point."

Downes said the plan has already been laid out.

"There are two questions," Downes said. "One is capitol. That is maintenance of the buildings, fixing safety entrances and so forth which are very expensive. That's the 54 million one time, and then the operational costs which are the 20.8 million a year for eight years, and that's to increase teacher salaries."

Garatoni said throwing more money at a problem is not always the right move.

"Every teacher is underpaid," Garatoni said. "There's no question about that. At the same time, the issues I think they've got in their schools will not be solved by more money. They've got morale issues. They've got bad cultures in their schools, a lot of intangibles that they've got to fix that money will not fix."

Harrison Elementary School Teacher Courtney Mitchel said she disagreed.

"There's just a lot of good stuff going on in the schools," Mitchell said. "I think if people really find themselves researching and looking into it, they'd be surprised about some of the things the referendum is going to help with. It's really just for the kids. It will make things better for our students. It will make things better for our schools."

Election organizers said because of the expected high volume of absentee ballots for this election, referendum results may not be available until as late as ten days after Election Day.

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