Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 12, 2012

Schools’ leader backing wind farm

Without turbines, Tri-Central might have to mull consolidation.

By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer

Sharpsville — Leaders of Tri-Central Community Schools could be forced to consider school consolidation if the district’s tax base doesn’t start growing and its student population continues to decline, the district’s superintendent said.

Lee Williford said he is backing the proposed Prairie Breeze Wind Farm because the project could help alleviate some of the financial strains his district has been dealing with for years.

“Right now, our board is doing whatever it can to stay Tri-Central,” the superintendent said. “It’s a great little gem out here in the prairie.”

Protecting that gem, however, has become increasingly difficult, Williford said.

Tri-Central’s general fund has been slashed by the state.

Williford said the district’s assessed valuation could drop significantly, too, because of construction on U.S. 31. Homes have been torn down. Businesses have closed, and acres of farmland have been removed from the tax base, he said.

That could force Tri-Central to raise its tax rate just to maintain buildings and meet financial obligations, Williford said.

That doesn’t bode well for a district that already has cut its budget to the bone.

“We’ve been in the process of making drastic cuts to the budget for two years,” he said. “We’ve cut back in all areas.”

The district laid off teachers and reduced hours for instructional aides. Teachers also signed a contract that includes no raises through 2016, Williford said.

“Our poor teaching staff, they’re having to work harder than ever,” he said.

The administrators, too, are wearing multiple hats. The superintendent said he’s worried they will soon burn out from all the added work.

“That takes a toll,” he said.

And there’s really nowhere in Tri-Central’s budget to make cuts anymore. It’s bare-boned, he said.

The only other option is to cut additional staff members, and that would force class sizes to go up, Williford said.

“We’re adamant about keeping class sizes small,” he said.

The superintendent said he understands some people are opposed to the wind farm project.

He’s simply looking out for his school district and trying to protect it, he said.

Williford sees the project as an economic opportunity that could help stabilize Tri-Central schools.

He estimated the project could bring in as much as $800,000 more for the district’s capital projects fund over the 10-year abatement period.

The money could fund necessary maintenance projects and additional technology at the school.

The district is looking into providing one-to-one technology to its students, but it won’t be possible until Tri-Central can secure additional funds, Williford said.

“The money would make long-range planning easier,” he said. “This is an opportunity for economic development.”