SCS board approves $13.6 million in building upgrades

Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

The Salem Community Schools board approved a package of building projects during a special meeting at 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon. More members of the community than have been at a board meeting in the past year attended, both in support and opposition of the projects.

Most of the debate surrounded the issue of cost for the projects, which total around $13.6 million, with security project additions added to the initial $13 million price tag, which would be paid for by a bond issuance that could raise property taxes significantly over the next few years until more debt comes off the tax load.

Susan Boling, Monroe Township trustee, said she hoped the board would bear in mind the number of low income families in the area and the impact of just a few more dollars a month could bring to some taxpayers.

“Our township is the poorest in the county,” said Boling. “I deal with township assistance a lot. Yesterday or the day before, we had someone who was struggling to pay their electric bill and buying food and they make a mortgage payment and they put that first and have to give up the necessities of life, so I hope you’ll keep in mind we’re, I believe, the second poorest county in the whole state.”

According to numbers presented during the school’s community dinner on March 6, the current debt service tax rate is 43¢ per $100 assessed valuation. Thurston said the school anticipates a gradual increase the first two years, based on current assessed value, and then rising more steeply before coming back down to about 10¢ less than the current rate.

In 2019, it would go up to 52¢ and then to 54¢ in 2020. In 2021, taxpayers would see a jump to 80¢, where it would stay for 2022, before dropping to 69¢ in 2023 because debts start coming off. Then it would go down again to 49.5¢ in 2024 and then again to 33¢ in 2025. These numbers assume assessed values remain steady.

Band and choir students spoke in favor of the package, which includes designated band and choir rooms, which will be located just off the English wing.

“The fine arts are one of the most important assets to this school,” said sophomore Leah Scott. “… Our arts department is full of several musically inclined individuals. Many of our students plan on taking a musical career and the materials and environment that we have provided now just aren’t enough to suffice our student needs. Right now, both the choir and band share the middle school auditorium. The Salem band shares a band room with the entire middle school band. Not only is the room small, the students have to walk there from the high school no matter the weather. We have walked in the cold, snow, rain, ice and storms.”

She added that Salem is unique in Southern Indiana for its lack of band and choir rooms at their high school and that the choir room was never designed to operate as such. Adding turf to the football field would open up opportunities for ISSMA competitions to be hosted at the school and an expansion of the Salem Band Invitational, the biggest fundraiser of the year for the band. Having facilities for band and choir could also pique interest from students considering Salem as their academic home.

“In today’s world, there are so many horrible things that our children and students could be doing,” said Scott.  “In a town with such limited activities, we should be proud of the ones who are choosing band and choir over drugs … There are students who rely on the arts to express themselves, and … the arts are giving and have always given a sense of home to the kids who love it.”

Senior Tyasia Gant agreed. While she will never use the rooms as a student, she said she is still passionate about the possibility for other students.

“When I moved to Salem, I could see there wasn’t much diversity,” she said. “I was the only black student at the middle school. I had the worst time trying to find friends … I was literally the black sheep. I didn’t know of any talents that I had … then I got put into choir.”

That was the start of her seven-year run with the choral department at the school.

“I found friends and I found my talent and I realized how much it means to me,” she said.

She added that she noticed when her older brother, Davon, became interested in sports, he had many more spaces open to him as a student athlete, like the gym and weight room, than she did as a musician.

“I don’t understand why my teacher has to limit the space and the number of members in our choir group when there are no limits to the number of players on a football team,” she said. “… I think that there could be more choir members and our choir could grow if my teacher didn’t have to say no to so many people. I feel like this building could allow our choir to grow to its full potential.”

Bill Suvak said he was convinced everyone in the room that day was there because they cared about the community.

“As I look at the projects that are proposed, I don’t have an argument for a single one,” he said. “I certainly support the athletic program at the school and believe the arts are important. I guess I have a little bit of concern because out of this dollar figure, I don’t see any dollars that go to the academic side of things, but perhaps that’s another issue. Like it or not, Salem and our county is poor … and as we talk about the tax burden this total project is likely to inflict, it is pretty significant, particularly for those who are struggling already … Even though these projections show it peaking and falling … I’d be inclined to say more often than not, once a tax goes up, it doesn’t come down.”

He suggested the board not do away with the projects, but do them over time instead of in “one lump.”

“Over the years, running a business, there have been things I’ve wanted to do that cost money that I had to schedule out,” he said. “I had to prioritize and pick and choose and I don’t think it’s any different in this situation. I guess I have trouble understanding why all of a sudden this big lump [must be spent]. I suppose it could be argued that inflation could hit and interest rates could go up, but you know what? We can look back and see that it goes up and it goes down and none of us can sit here and say with any certainty what things will look like two years from now.”

Mayor Troy Merry also spoke on behalf of the City Council.

“I want to see every child in Salem Schools excel to their total potential,” he said. “I want them to do greater things than I ever dreamed of doing and I want them to have things to do that with. That said, I’m curious how this will affect the circuit breaker.”

Assistant Superintendent Kim Thurston replied that the tax caps are currently at $260,000 and the City of Salem is at $458,000 and Washington County is at $174,000 but that he can’t project too far out as far as how the city will be affected by caps.

Duane Roach spoke out against approving the projects.

“I’m not in Washington County a lot,” he said. “I work out of Louisville. My wife has had a business cutting hair here for over 30 years … I pay my fair share of taxes … We’re like the rest of everybody. We’re proud of our school. It’s a highlight of the community and we want everything for it, but going through the list of what they’re wanting, a lot of it is all wants and not needs. Doing a little research on the internet, we have a student body of 1,900 K-12 and I was told, ‘Well, we’re losing students to West Washington,’ and ‘We’re losing students who are going to Floyd Central,’ and we need to compete with them … We can’t compete with them.”

He said the ratio of city population to student population is significantly different between the Salem district and the Floyd Central district. There are more businesses to pay into Floyd Central than there are paying into Salem. He argued the Floyd Central schools can afford what they have thanks to the population, industry and number of students enrolled.

“We can’t bankrupt ourselves keeping up with the Joneses,” he said, adding that he had a “real problem” with there not being a referendum and just a meeting on a Friday.

He said he often sees projects go over-budget and listed other things tax dollars are going to, including the Washington County Justice Center, where, he said, the ending impact on taxpayers is unknown.

Roach argued the students who brought up the issue of having to walk in all weather to get to their band room would have to face the same thing when they got to college.

“I’ve put two children through school … and they have to walk outside sometimes in inclement weather,” he said. “I’m sorry about it, but that’s the reality of it.”

He said the board members he talked to were fixated on one program or another.

“It’s like it’s your pet and ‘that’s what I want, so that’s what we’re gonna do,’ and you’ve got to look at the repercussions on the community as a whole. It will send waves far greater than what I think you’re concerned with … If we get to a limit where you raise the property taxes too much, it will devalue the land and industries who are looking to come into Salem will look at it and say, ‘Well, their tax rate is so high, but I can go to Scott County of Floyd County and have a better deal … This whole thing just has too many question marks with it.”

He and others discussed the issue that very little discussion was had about money going toward school security.

Student Breawna Rice had a rebuttal.

“We are a poor town,” she said, “but that shouldn’t mean our students shouldn’t be able to excel at what we love. Students at the high school or middle school or elementary — we’re the future of this county. This is going to help us know or see what we want to do in the future. Tyasia is going to Ball State for [music] … We have kids in a room with their heads touching the ceiling because [the room] is so small. It’s so difficult for us to not have a place to go. [Bill Spencer-Pierce] takes us out to the lobby or outside to sing sometimes because we can’t do it in there. Saying it’s not a need and just a want — we do need this. This is what students are looking for. This is what’s going to help us in the future.”

Board President Becky White said the reason the board is considering this as more of a package deal is because it’s more cost effective.

“These are not wants,” she said. “These are needs.”

She gave an overview of the various projects, beginning with the band and choir rooms.

“When I was in school, many years ago, we had a band room,” she said. “… When the renovation was done … they never did rebuild it. They told the band, ‘We’ll build you a room, but not today.’ I think Bonnie Harmon said it’s been two or three times and she has folders showing the history of where the band room was going to be … and when do you say to these students, ‘You matter’? These children are saying to us, ‘Do we not matter?’ … Today, we possibly can do this. We’re not being reckless on this. We’re saying our students deserve a band room … They can’t even hang the plaque they received a few years ago because they don’t have a place to hang it.”

She moved on to the middle school pool, saying inefficient fixes have been applied again and again, but that Dan Mullins said during the community dinner it will be more expensive to fix when “it all goes to pot.”

“The pool was put in to make sure that every student who came through our school knew how to swim,” White said. “Now we have the swim team and much more.”

She said the tennis courts are in need of replacing.

“I’m aware of how low on the totem pole that program is,” she said. “…Those tennis courts are very old … and when we go to other schools … they’re saying ‘Are you guys ever going to get new tennis courts?’”

As far as the elementary school gym floor goes, White said teachers she’s talked to said the cement floor is a liability.

“Students have been hurt on that floor as far as falling down,” she said. “We don’t want to advertise that, but this floor is not safe … Anyone who goes into that gym knows it’s not up to compliance.”

Some have questioned the athletic upgrades, including the artificial turf on the football field and the lights at the baseball field. During meetings with the public, Superintendent Lynn Reed has said the lights at the ball field pose a legal liability with Title 9, which requires boys’ and girls’ athletics to be equal. Currently, the baseball field has no lights and the softball field does, enabling them to host later games and tournaments the baseball team can’t. The football field, Reed said, is in desperate need of crowning and doing so with real grass would render the field unusable for a full year, meaning no home football games, no band competitions, and would still be quite expensive and time consuming. Artificial turf, she reasoned, would be less expensive and time consuming to maintain and would enable the school to host more activities with the music and athletic programs. The soccer teams and PE programs would also be able to use the football field, along with the Parks and Rec programs.

Security upgrades have been underway again and again over the past decade, including entryway renovations, keyless entry and more.

Several have questioned how much money the school would need to spend in order for this project package to go before a public vote. In order for remonstrance, the school would have to spend $5 million per building/location. As this package falls below that threshold, this decision will not go before a public vote.

“For the size of this community, that’s still a sizeable hit for this community, notwithstanding we don’t have the industry to generate the money to pay for that,” said Roach. “We’re already under current bonds and we’re just going to add to that.

Janet Paynter brought up the time the school closed the trade school, she said, for the football program. She said it was the teachers at the school who helped her children, along with their own drive and enthusiasm, succeed in life.

“You have your mission on the wall saying ‘leading them to success,’ but I see kids from your school that my son went to school with in the paper for drugs and alcohol and DUI because their main thing was sports,” she said. “I love sports, … but where are they going after high school with a degree in sports?”

Member Erika Garloch spoke regarding the trades program, saying she attended Prosser while she was a student at Salem High School and that students who want to attend have access to a large number of trades and internships with local businesses as well.

Paynter asked why students don’t have that trade education at Salem.

“My husband learned how to work in a machine shop in Salem with his father,” Paynter said. “We’ve run a successful business. I understand these children have to walk in the cold and snow. Who in this room doesn’t? … You’re losing focus of what your mission is.”

“We have been working on our academics,” said White. “We just gave our teachers a raise and that was something that was a top priority for this board, but as far as high school students … safety is our number one issue. When they have to walk across from the high school to the middle school, we have to ensure they stay safe or when they leave a ball game, they have to stay safe.”

Board member Mark “Bubba” Abbott said, after the board was questioned as to why a member of the public hadn’t heard about the meeting until an hour before, that the board has been discussing these projects for some time now and that school board meetings are open to the public, but are rarely attended by the public. Other board members mentioned the projects had been mentioned before in the media, along with dates and times for meetings.

“This is not a pipe dream that we pulled out of the air last week and said, ‘Let’s spend $15 million,” said Abbott. “We have been working on this project for quite some time and these are things we feel like our children deserve and our children need.”

He added that removing extracurriculars like sports or music could result in students giving up on academics.

“If you take extracurriculars like sports away from these kids, and you’re going to have a lot of issues with kids who don’t want to come to school or keep their grades up,” he said. “They’re coming to school because they enjoy the choir or the band and they’re excelling because they care about these things … Only 13 percent of this project is sports-related. It’s not all about sports. It’s about being able to give our children things they need and things they’re passionate about.”

Board Vice President Ron Haendiges said the board added the $.6 million to the original price tag for security upgrades, but that he wanted more time to think about discuss the matter. He made a motion after more discussion to table the whole vote pending further discussion.

“I want to discuss it with the following priorities: school safety as number one, number two as excellence in educational outcome — are we doing everything we can to effectively educate our kids … — and thirdly, let’s look at these projects one by one and look at the merits of each project. Some of you know I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone over the past 36 hours or so and I would say … seven out of 10 incoming calls, texts and emails are opposed to the project as it stands. Those opposed are not necessarily opposed to specific projects … but I’ve got to balance that with the potentially significant tax increase.

“If I’m asked to vote on the whole loaf, the $13.6 million, I am absolutely opposed to it,” he added.

Board member Steve Motsinger agreed, saying initially he usually was one to vote for projects like this, but that his mind has been changed.

“I personally do not feel comfortable at this point in going forward with this project as stated,” he said. “I think Ron is correct and we don’t agree on a whole lot … We need to prioritize and … we need to do it in steps.”

Garloch disagreed.

“We’re at a time when interest rates are low and when things get tabled, they tend to get put off and put off and interest rates go up,” she said. “I don’t have a crystal ball in front of me, but I do not see interest rates going down. That concerns me. … I own 140 acres. I’m going to pay taxes, people. It’s going to hit me hard. My last child has already graduated. I have grandkids now. Am I ready to put money in to their future? Yes, I am. I’m ready to sacrifice the money that I have to pay in taxes.”

Haendiges reminded those at the meeting what happened 10 years ago in 2008.

“If assessed values drop, it’s like a mortgage on your home,” he said. “If you’re paying $1,000 a month and you have a two income earner household and the husband comes home and says, ‘I lost my job today, honey,’ the mortgage company still wants to get paid. Hopefully we don’t see a recession, but if you go back in history, there’s a recession every 10 years and it’s been 10 years. If assessments drop, the bond still has to be paid and we’ll have less money to pay it.”

The board voted on the motion, which failed. Motsinger and Haendiges were the only two who voted in favor of tabling the issue.
Abbott made a motion that the board proceed with the vote to approve the projects.

“Like Mrs. Garloch said, I am afraid historically, the way things have gone in the school system, that we put things off, and to me, I’m not guaranteed tomorrow,” he said. “We’re not guaranteed tomorrow. I would rather be proactive … I don’t think the projects are going to get any cheaper or that interest rates will get cheaper and I think we all agree these projects are important.”

Board member Tricia Wheeler agreed.

“I’m a taxpayer … and a new business owner, so this affects me quite a bit also, but like Erika said, I’m ready to invest in my kids,” she said. “I’ve been on here 12 years and I’ve heard about a band and choir room that was supposed to be added on when we had the gym added on, but at that time, those kids were put to the side and I don’t like putting any kids to the side.”

She said a reason some students didn’t stay with band in high school is because they didn’t have time to get to the middle school where all their equipment and band classes were. She brought up the idea of the commerce the community is missing out on by the school not being able to hold weekend ISSMA band competitions. She reiterated the baseball lights are a Title 9 issue and could pose a legal problem if the baseball field and softball fields didn’t have the same amenities. The pool, she said, was a safety issue.

“Heaven forbid one of our kids got poisoned because chemicals leaked out those corroding pipes,” she said. “Then we’re sued and a kid is hurt.”

She said the tennis courts are so outdated, athletes end up falling and with twisted ankles, on top of the school being mocked by other teams who come to play on those courts.

Wheeler said she admits to being against artificial turf on the football field.

“I can’t name you a football player who has gone on to the NFL, but I can name you band and choir kids who have gone on to success,” she said. “But when I found out that my soccer kids — I am on the soccer committee — can play on there and we can have a great field there for band, Relay For Life, which I know is very important to this community and has gone downhill somewhat because people got in trouble for being on the field and told to get off, … PE class, that affects all students. I am here for the students. I think all of these are for the students. We have put money into STEM and science projects. I’m a big science nerd. I’ve seen too many times where we’ve said ‘let’s table it’ and never hear about it again.”

Haendiges said he was proactive with money, but his own money, not taxpayers’. Wheeler reminded him the package originally included $25 million in projects and it was brought down to $13.6 million and Haendiges repeated he agreed with the merits of all the projects, but “don’t ram the whole thing down my throat.”

He said the school isn’t where it needs to be with safety, but other board members disagreed.

“I think we’re very proactive,” said Wheeler.

“Speak to the local law officials,” Haendiges said.

“I do,” replied Wheeler, whose husband, Joe Wheeler, is Salem’s chief of police. “Every day.”

“Even though we do have some fantastic staff … are we where we need to be and want to be with our educational outcomes?” asked Haendiges.

He repeated each of the projects, individually, have merit, but may not be worth the tax increase if they’re done all together.

“Think of the single mother who you’re potentially going to increase the property taxes of if you vote this through,” he said.
Jamie Tharp, a single mother, spoke up in response to that.

“I’m a mother of four and I work here in Salem,” she said. “… I’m not rich by any means and I have a home worth around $100,000, so I’m going to pay some property taxes on this … I chose the Salem school system for a reason, because out of my four children, one of them is special needs and … we couldn’t get the opportunities we needed elsewhere in the county because he’s very smart, but he needs some extra help behavior-wise … We struggled for years trying to find his niche and he started at Salem this year in band and he has friends for the first time in 12 years … For some of these kids, the only outlet that they have, the only place they belong is the fine arts. Some of these programs are huge. You say we’re in a poor community, but how do you beef up our community and our income? You give these kids the opportunity and we send them to college with all of the things that they can get in Floyd County or wherever else. They deserve the same opportunities. We don’t live in those communities and we’re not comparing apples to oranges. They’re all children; they’re all apples and they all deserve to go straight to the top.”

After more discussion, the board then voted again whether to approve the package. Haendiges and Motsinger voted against and Garloch, White, Monika Spaulding, Wheeler and Abbott voted in approval. The motion was passed, much to the joy of the students who came to speak on behalf of the band and choir rooms.

Tears in her eyes, Gant was all smiles.

“I’ve watched Spencer-Pierce suffer to keep things as best as he can,” she said. “He deserves this and the future of the choir deserves to grow to their full potential.”

Scott agreed.

“This is the most important day of the year for us,” she said. “This is our future. This is who we are and this is what we believe in. We are more than willing to fight for what we believe and think we deserve.”


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