North Judson Schools hang in balance with Tuesday's referendum

North Judson-San Pierre Schools face foreseeable problems with the upcoming referendum vote on Nov. 3.
Rachael Herbert-Varchetto

NORTH JUDSON — The special referendum that may determine what happens for the future of North Judson-San Pierre (NJSP) Schools on Nov. 3 will have far reaching ramifications.
"We got to the point where despite significant cuts and being conservative with point, it's difficult to continue without an increase in revenue," said Superintendent of NJSP Schools Lynn Johnson.
The referendum will utilize tax money gathered from the vote will be used to keep the school open for next year, spanning a total of seven years of collections. According to Johnson, For the first year of the referendum, 47.5 cents of every $100 of a property's assessed value will be collected. For years two through seven, the rate will drop to 27 cents gathered per $100 of assessed property value.
The overall school tax rate will be 1.24.
The issue on why the referendum is needed has been a difficult one.
"We're in a situation where it is kind of a perfect storm because we have declining enrollment and revenue from the state," said Johnson.
In an effort to be more conservative, the school system has cut $2.5 million since 2010 and worked to keep as many programs and positions as possible while making cuts. Of their current five administrators, the system absorbed the athletics director and transportation director within the five positions as a savings to the cooperation.
"It's gotten to the point where it's difficult to make more reductions without impacting certain personnel and programs," she said.
Schools across the state are now made to compete for students based on the programs and offerings available to families.
"We had a few students that decided to go to other corporations because we don't have a marching band. We have a situation where corporations are driving into ours to pick up kids," said Johnson. "It's more of a competition for kids, rather than a collegial relationship."
Further complicating the matter is the view North Judson and San Pierre are scarce in jobs.
"I understand everybody has personal feelings as far as money. Some of it is certainly misinformation because we have been very clear about what we spent our money on," stated Johnson.
But the greatest fear may come from the farming and ag community, who believes, Johnson thinks, they might be stuck with the largest bill.
Local Debbie Wappel, a wife and member of a farming family, is against the referendum.
"We call it wait. We want more community involvement. We feel like getting heads and minds together to come up with ways to save and talk to people inside and outside of the community," said Wappel.
Wappel is a former administrator and art teacher from Winamac.
Wappel is a part of the organized effort against the referendum, but not because she has a dislike of schools.
"We love schools absolutely. I don't like it that people who are pro-referendum who accuse us of wanting to wait we're not caring about schools. We care deeply about the kids," she said. "Our point is we felt it was all decided ahead of time and we wanted more input. They say we don't go to the school board meetings, but we don't feel we're welcome or our ideas are seriously considered. It's easier to raise taxes than consolidate the schools. It's an easier process for those in leadership.
Wappel and others against the referendum feel there should be other alternatives considered before the referendum is voted upon.
"We would like all three county schools to begin to work together for a cooperative effort. I believe it would save the corporations money by sharing information and large costs, and key employees," she said.
Smaller staffing at the administration levels and in the schools, as well as only two schools for NJSP rather than three, may make a difference.
"Many small school systems operate on a K-6 and 7 to 12 level and share administrators that way," said Wappel.
Johnson addressed and dispelled charges appearing in advertisements that large consultants were hired for an ad campaign, as well as a financial advisor.
"The financial advisor was way before a decision for the referendum," she said.
A bond council was hired for legal purposes to ensure that all filings were legal.
"As far as a consultant to run the campaign, it's all been volunteers, community members, and staff who volunteered their time and energy," said Johnson.
Wappel has hope but believes the road to repair is complicated.
"I think it will take multiple avenues. Consolidation is one. It may still take a referendum, but a much smaller amount,"she said.
After speaking with a state representative during the summer, Wappel is taking the advice she was given to be more involved to make the changes she as a parent wants to see.
"It includes more involvement and decision making at the schools. If we don't want to support the school['s decisions], we need to get more involved and not just throw more money…We don't really have the time to be involved and we want to have confidence in those who are leading, and because the school is in such a financial bind, we feel we need to get involved," she said.
The referendum vote will effect Wayne Townships one through four, Jackson, California 2, and Railroad. The polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
For California 2, voters can head to California Township Fire Department, 7225 S US 35, in Knox.
Jackson Township, Victory Christian Church, 2665 S Range Road, Knox.
Railroad Township, San Pierre Fire Department, 102 N Fisher Street, San Pierre.
Wayne 1 and 2, North Judson Fire Department, 253 Luken Street, North Judson.
Wayne 3, St. Peter Luthern Church, 810 W Tamer Ave, North Judson.
Wayne 4, North Judson-San Pierre High School, 1 Bluejay Drive, North Judson.