Yes or No: A Community Dividing Question (Editorial)

For the past few weeks I’ve been keeping an eye out for “vote yes” and “vote no” yard signs and Facebook posts. As I drove around town Sunday afternoon, I saw about twice as many “vote no” yard signs as I saw ones that said “vote yes.” I was driving mostly through the county, so it was somewhat expected, but what has been very unexpected is the number of people I see sharing Facebook posts adamantly arguing against the school referendum, when they haven’t been politically active on Facebook previously. A quick read through the comment section’s of those posts shows a ton of disagreement in our community, and it shows that a lot of people have questions about why this referendum is necessary and how we got here in the first place.

A lot of people have been asking questions like, “what is the school corporation doing with the money they have now,” and “what happened to the money from the last referendum.” To put things in perspective, the school corporation’s budget is regularly around $160 million dollars. That’s close to the entire county and city budgets combined, approximately $70 million and $90 million respectively. That being said, total disbursements for the school corporation in 2021 were $208 million, and if you follow this link you can see a line by line budget for those funds. As far as the previous referendum is concerned, that money was classified as an “operational referendum” to last eight years, and a large majority of that money was to be spent on school protection officers, counselors, and increased teacher salaries. It’s worth mentioning that many of the current “vote no” folks were strong supporters of increasing the number of school protection officers.

Another common argument from the opponents of the referendum has been that because of previous failures within the school corporation we can’t or shouldn’t trust the current administration. The problem with that perspective is this, we have a new superintendent and a mostly new school board, who were elected to replace the previous administration, and a majority of the school board supports the superintendent. So, if people are suggesting that we wait until we can vote in new school board members who will fire the current superintendent, then we’re talking about years before a new leader could start another new plan to fix our schools. Others have suggested that we shouldn’t trust any superintendent or school board to oversee the process, and that the state or a group of “trustworthy” business leaders should be chosen to supervise the project.

Much of the distrust of the new superintendent and the new school board members seems to stem from the School Corporation’s executive pay and the lack of transparency regarding the decision to close Meadows. It’s true that the idea of an executive pay cut was floated before the first referendum but never occurred, and while the superintendent did take a $20,000 pay cut, many thought that reduction would be permanent and were disappointed when the following year his salary was higher than before the cut. If the referendum fails it may turn out to be in large part because VCSC executives were not willing to sacrifice 5% of their salaries, when they’re asking the community to make so many sacrifices. While there may be good reasons to vote no on the upcoming referendum, there has been widespread ignorance and dishonesty in the “vote no” movement.

Some things were as small as sharing a post with a misinterpretation, like this one from Chris Austin where he claimed the Director of Diversity got a $90,000 pay raise, and also didn’t understand that the school corporation has a limit on the amount of funds they can transfer between budget line items. To be fair, I didn’t know that there was a limit on transfers, and that is a mistake that anyone could have made, but that post had almost 600 shares, while the correction Chris posted the next day had only 5 shares. One of the most misleading things shared during this controversy has been a batch of fliers mailed out to the community with the Indiana Farm Bureau logo. There was a short sentence at the bottom of the mailer stating that the Vigo County Farm Bureau is a separate entity, but in this day and age very few people probably saw that disclaimer.

Many people fighting against the referendum have also been asking, why now and why the rush? One answer I haven’t seen in response to these questions is that the kids in our community are facing unique challenges that demand immediate attention. Crime has been trending up for several years and median household incomes have been trending down. The Terre Haute 2025 Community Plan acknowledged that Terre Haute’s median household income is $20,000 below that of Indiana’s average, and the plan highlighted raising median incomes as a top priority. This means a higher percentage of our kids are coming from disadvantaged homes and are experiencing traumatic encounters with violent crimes. The longer these trends continue the harder it will be for Terre Haute to break out of the cycle of increasing crime and poverty, and improved education is absolutely essential to stop those trends.

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