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REAL PoV: Transparency is essential in public schools

Andy Rutten
Andy Rutten, At-Large School Board Candidate for Penn-Harris-Madison School Corp


In running for school board in the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corp, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for government agencies like public schools to be clear and responsive to the local community. Each governing agency in Indiana has a legal authority to provide for a specific common need, but they must value and maintain the trust of the community.

For public schools, the mandate is educating our kids. The cornerstones of a good education are math, science, reading and history. Our community is giving almost 50% of property taxes to PHM schools to meet this important need.

In addition to wanting to know what is being taught in classrooms, taxpayers wish to
know HOW MUCH in taxes are needed for kids to get educated and that this money is being
responsibly used on education. I, for one, get frustrated when school officials do not provide proper transparency.

Example 1: The PHM Administration stated, in writing, at the February 2022 Board meeting that a new Capital Improvements Plan doesn’t increase property taxes.

Figure 1: 2023 PHM Capital Improvement presentation 2.28.2022

This presentation helped secure a school board vote to authorize a public hearing on the matter. Yet, one month later at the formal hearing, the same PHM administration disclosed in fine print that the tax rate will increase.

Figure 2: PHM Public Hearing presentation 3.28.2022

Taxes = tax rate multiplied by assessed valuation. When factoring in increases in assessed
property values disclosed later in the Aug 2022 PHM budget work session, this Plan raises
taxes on the community by 22.4%.

Example 2: The PHM School Corporation mailed out a promotional mailer of school success statistics (right in the middle of the current School Board election) claiming school tax rates have gone down sharply from $1.9 in 2006 to $0.94 in 2022, a drop of about 50%. Is this true?

Figure 3: Copy of PHM Oct 5th, 2022 advertisement mailer

Prior to 2009, public schools relied a lot more on local property taxes. The $1.9 rate in 2006 went toward both educational in-the-classroom expenses and outside-the-classroom
administrative expenses. Indiana tax law has changed substantially since then.

In 2022, state taxes (income & sales tax) covered PHM’s educational budget of $72 million, while $30.5 million in local taxes (property tax) went toward PHM’s administrative budget. That’s a total of $102.5 million. Yet the $0.94 property tax rate only covers the administration portion of $30.5 million, including the rather expensive promotional mailer shown in Figure 3. So, the PHM community does have about half the property tax rate it used to, but is only getting less than a third of the benefit from it.

These two tax rates are not comparable! A better analysis is to look at how property tax rates have changed since 2020 when the last major tax law change was implemented. This data is taken from the Aug 2022 PHM budget work session:

2020 – $0.91
2023 – $0.96

That’s a rate increase of 5.5% when comparing apples to apples. It’s worth noting that property tax rates used for other government agencies in St. Joseph County have decreased slightly.

Everyone knows property values are high in the PHM district. Again let’s include adjustments in property values and look at how total tax amounts have changed over the last few years. This helps explain the sharp increase in property tax bills many taxpayers have noticed.

2020 – $26,197,479
2023 – $36,473,837

That’s an overall tax increase of 40%.

Example 3: Several contact lists of parents at Penn-Harris-Madison School Corp were used recently to disseminate divisive political rhetoric and solicit campaign donations for current PHM school board members. This incident violates all manner of trust between the community and PHM, and could represent an illegal action of advocacy by PHM.

To make informed voting choices, taxpayers have a right to accurate information on how taxes are being spent, both in taxes levied and the content of education curriculum being taught. They also want to know this money is being spent responsibly, and schools are not distracted by politics anywhere near the classroom. I feel strongly that ensuring this for public schools is a primary responsibility of elected school board members.

Andy Rutten
At-Large School Board Candidate for Penn-Harris-Madison School Corp


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