From the bleachers to the chairs arranged on the gym floor, parents, teachers and local residents filled the Central Elementary School gymnasium Monday to sound off about taxes and teacher layoffs.
While previous South Putnam school board meetings have brought out parents teachers and even students concerned with proposed cuts to programs and staff, another group voiced an opinion at the Monday meeting.
Recent property tax bills showed increases as high as 28 percent for some land owners in the South Putnam school district, and at the meeting, board members heard from senior residents upset about the tax hike.
"Is there anything we can eliminate?" one woman asked. "Do we need all those sports things like archery or tennis?"
"If we don't have the money, we don't have the money," another patron added.
Supt. Dan Schroeder explained cutting programs would just upset a whole other group of people, namely those with children still in school.
Also concerned were parents and teachers who said the tax hike came as a shock after learning about the reduction in force of 9 full-time teachers and cut hours for several more at South Putnam.
"You are taking it from both ends," one parent pointed out.
Reelsville parent Jim Burdge represented many of the parents as he brought a list of finance-related questions to the board and Supt. Dan Schroeder.
Burdge took the microphone set at the front of the room and asked for explanations on administrators' retirement benefits, the reduction in force list and tax increases, what tax increases could be coming in the 2007-2008 school year, and whether things would have been better if the state had been given control of finances.
At past meetings, parents have questioned administrators' retirement benefits, including 10 years of family health care and a 401K contribution worth 50 percent of their final contract's salary.
Board member Dale Mendenhall told the audience the retirement benefits given to previous administrators has not been offered to newer hires such as Supt. Schroeder. He also said retirement benefit pay-outs did not affect the recent Reduction in Force (RIF).
"This is not a General Fund obligation," he said. "It is coming out of a separate bond issue. It does not affect the (reduction in force) people. It is not where their money comes from."
Still, board members said new retirement benefits could also be renegotiated under the new retirement package.
This subject brought up a tense moment as some patrons asked whether any board members have health care through the school. Board president Howard Bowen took the microphone and asserted he did not take benefits. He then laid the microphone on the table in front of the other board members, where it stayed for several moments of uncomfortable silence.
No other board member broached the subject until the question was asked again later in the meeting. This time, board members Nancy Wells and Mike Rissler both said they did not take benefits while Mendenhall said he did take them. Member Steven Cash defended his decision to do so.
"Do you go to the (Putnam County) Commissioners and ask them if they take health care benefits?" he asked.
"We've got 80 teachers making (more money than the board members) who get it all paid for."
In reference to the tax increases, Reelsville parent Liz Cheatham asked why parents had not been updated about the hike when the RIF list was released.
"Why were we not informed of both (tax hikes and the reduction in force) at the February meeting?" she asked.
Supt. Schroeder explained.
"At that time it didn't have much bearing on the (RIF)," he said, adding that the budget had been advertised. "In the General Fund it only raised 3 cents (per 100 dollars of assessed value)."
He went on to explain that most of the increase in taxes had been to support the Debt Service Fund which does not pay for teacher wages and benefits.
As for what the future will hold, one patron said her question for the board could have been wishful thinking.
"People say I live in a dream world," Reelsville parent Pam Schlatter said. "But when all this is settled, will taxes go back down?"
Schroeder explained it would take a long time to reduce the Debt Service Fund debt, and years from now taxes could go down, but not by much.
However, he also said at the meeting taxes would most likely not increase in 2007 to the extent they had this year. And, he added, teacher cuts would not be likely for the 2007-2008 school year, although staffing levels will have to be reviewed yearly as health care costs rise.
Schroeder also said property taxes had affected the board's decision to not move for state control of the school corporation.
He said the Department of Local Government Finance could have raised property taxes by as much as 50 percent.
"We would have talked about getting out in a year or so, and not over a longer time if we had done it that way," he said. "If we had done that we would have increased the tax rate a tremendous amount in one year and then it would have been over with. We also found out in purchases over $10,000, we would have to get permission from the state."
While the discussion raised a lot of questions about how money is funded, Burdge reminded board members the cash spent by the school comes from the community.
"You may have 20 different budgets to draw out of for 20 different things," he said, "but every dollar is a tax dollar."