Survey shows support for MCCSC referendum — but how strong?

There’s no denying that the Monroe County Community School Corp. board got some good very news last week when the Springsted Inc. consulting firm reported on a survey that showed strong support for raising property taxes to support schools.

In the survey of 401 registered voters early this month, 69 percent said they would vote to increase taxes to make up for state cuts in school funding. When told the increase for the average homeowner would be $65 a year, support rose to 75 percent. (The results are posted on the MCCSC website).

Springsted
representative Don Lifto said the survey revealed “a very, very good base of support for an operating referendum.” The school board, emboldened by the results, voted last week to go forward with a school-funding referendum in the Nov. 2 election. Members indicated they will decide this Tuesday (June 29) how much of a tax increase to ask for, and for how long.

But before anyone thinks this referendum is a slam dunk, it’s good to remember that talk is cheap – including talk with a stranger asking survey questions by telephone. For evidence, look at the annual Phil Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of public attitudes toward education:

— In 2009, six of 10 poll respondents said they would pay more taxes to fund free preschool for children in low-income families.
— In 2006, two-thirds said they would pay more taxes for preschool for at-risk children.
— In 2002, “most” said they would pay more to avoid cuts in education funding.
— In the late 1980s, the poll found support for raising taxes to reduce class sizes, help poor school districts and raise standards.

The public will often say it supports education and is willing to pay more taxes to fund it. But the same public has a history of voting against elected officials who raise taxes for any reason. As in most elections, the winner in the school funding referendum will be the side that does the best job of persuading voters and — especially — getting its people to the polls.

In 1999, the public in the MCCSC district voted 2-to-1 against a referendum to increase property taxes to pay for school operating funds.

The referendum planned for 2010 is different, of course. Eleven years ago, the goals included extending the school day, adding programs and bringing the MCCSC per-pupil funding level out of the basement for the state. This time, the goal is to recover the $5.8 million that the district lost to state funding cuts.

But the MCCSC is expecting additional cuts, and it will be tempting to want to recover those as well. Tim Thrasher, the MCCSC comptroller, said state support will decline by $610,675 in 2011 if enrollment stays flat. If the MCCSC loses 100 students, funding will drop by $1.1 million. And with Indiana’s state tax collections still in the doldrums, school officials say they expect Gov. Mitch Daniels to announce a 5 percent cut in state funding for schools after the November elections.

The Herald-Times reported that board members seemed to be focusing on a referendum that would raise $7.5 million a year — requiring a property-tax increase of $97 a year for an average home with an assessed value of $156,000. It’s worth noting that the survey that generated such positive results referred specifically to getting back the $5.8 million in cuts and to an average tax increase of $65.

The survey tested voter support for a range of potential tax increases. For an increase of $112 a year for an average home, there was still majority support, but it fell to 58 percent.

“The data shows you could go to $112,” Lifto told the school board. “I wouldn’t.”

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