The financial situation at Eminence schools is so dire that officials say the district will have to shut down next year if voters don't approve a property tax increase in Tuesday's primary election.
School officials say without voter approval to raise property taxes, the 400 students in grades K-12 would have to be bused to another district as part of a consolidation.
But parent Rich Myers say the consequences would be much worse than that. He worries that the tiny town in a township of 1,200 people would lose its soul — and more than 100 years of school history.
INDYSTAR: Voter Guide, 2014 May primary
"I just love the closeness of the community and the school. Every parent knows the teacher, every teacher knows the kids. My daughter's class size is 20," said Myers, a 1982 Eminence High School graduate and Indiana State Police sergeant.
He says residents should vote their conscience. "But without the school," he said, "we would lose the center of the community. If the school is closed down, there is no reason for people to come out here or stay here."
Eminence is one of three Indianapolis-area districts asking voters to OK a property tax increase to generate revenue so they can avoid a financial squeeze they blame in part on property tax caps enacted by the state legislature in 2008.
Decatur Township Schools in Marion County is asking voters to approve $27 million over seven years to save two elementary schools, staff and its bus service. Mt. Vernon Community Schools in Hancock County wants $2.5 million over three years to pay off a short-term debt so it can reinvest in academic programs.
Since 2011, 36 referendums for operational funds have been waged in Indiana, 13 more than for new construction projects. It's a sign that more schools are desperate for money to pay teachers, run buses and keep academic programs operational than they were just a few years ago when efforts to build new schools were more common.
In Eminence, school officials say they need $390,000 in the next year to keep the school open past the 2014-15 academic year.
The referendum is asking for local property tax rate increase of 40 cents per $100 of valuation for the next seven years. But Superintendent Terry Terhune said in the first few years the district would increase the rate only 25 cents.
"It is is vital that we can get that $390,000, that the referendum passes" Terhune said, adding that he's confident residents will vote in favor. "It is literally the difference between us staying open or shutting down. It all comes down to the bottom line."
Property tax caps over the past six years have challenged some schools to chop millions in expenses through pay freezes, dismantling programs and closing schools.
If a school district wants to raise property taxes for funding capital projects or injecting money into new hires, transportation or other needs, they are required by law to ask voters for approval.
Decatur faces a $2.5 million annual budget deficit and is expected to lose $7.5 million this year because of of the caps, school officials said. The shortfall has nearly depleted the district transportation budget.
"The goal will be to always provide the best quality education no matter the result. But the bottom line is we are are going to have to cut more than $2 million on the heels of cutting already $14 million," Decatur superintendent Matt Prusiecki said of the possibility of a rejected referendum.
The Decatur referendum ask voters whether to increase the local property tax rate by nearly 30 cents per $100 of valuation, starting in 2015 and continuing for seven years. If approved, property tax bills would go up about $80 a year for the average home in the district is valued at $92,500.