Voters in the Monroe County Community School Corp. district sent a strong message of support for public education in Tuesday’s election. They voted 61 percent to 39 percent to raise property taxes in order to provide stable school funding for the next six years.
This is remarkable, given the anti-tax and anti-government storm that was blowing through Indiana.
Similar school-funding referenda were voted down in nine of the 13 Indiana districts that tried them, according to the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. And a statewide ballot initiative to enshrine restrictive property-tax caps in the state constitution passed by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
It would be easy to conclude Bloomington and Monroe County make up an island of enlightened support for education in a red sea of taxophobia. But remember that, in 1999, MCCSC voters overwhelmingly rejected a school-funding referendum.
One difference this time was an aggressive and organized campaign to make the case for the tax increase, enlist supporters and get them to the polls. MCCSC Superintendent J.T. Coopman spoke about the referendum to every group that would listen. Volunteers canvassed neighborhoods, put out yard signs and made get-out-the-vote phone calls, just like in any political campaign.
They effectively delivered the message that the referendum was about “needs,” not “wants.”
Administrators and board members, recognizing that they weren’t experts at running elections, hired consultants for polling, advice and voter data, a decision that angered critics but probably paid off. They also got a boost from experienced local politicians who helped organize and run the campaign.
Another key was early outreach to business and civic leaders. The MCCSC won crucial endorsements from the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce and the Bloomington Economic Development Corp. and also got support from city and county office-holders, labor unions, retired teachers and the Bloomington Herald-Times.
The chamber and BEDC support may have helped head off any organized opposition. There were anonymous mailings and anti-referendum letters to the newspaper, but nothing coordinated.
The referendum says property owners will pay up to 14.1 cents per $100 assessed value for six years to support the MCCSC general fund, which without the referendum was entirely dependent on state funding. The increase will provide an estimated $7.5 million a year.
The funding will enable the MCCSC to restore programs and staff that were eliminated as part of $5.8 million in spending cuts made this year. The district can take steps to return class sizes to what they were before the budget cuts.
This is great news for students and the community. But it would be wrong to view the outcome as a blank check for school spending decisions, or an endorsement of the status quo.
Voters may have sent one message when they overwhelmingly supported the referendum. But did they send another when, in the only contested school board race, they ousted the incumbent by 61 percent to 39 percent?
As former MCCSC board member John Hamilton wrote in a pro-referendum guest column for the Herald-Times, “Our schools do need to keep reforming — as they have been lately — creating greater accountability, transparency, innovation, choice.”
Coopman said this in a thank-you message Wednesday to the community: “We must recognize this is not an ending … It is a beginning. For the good of our students, we must come together and make the best possible use of the precious resources that the voters of our community have entrusted to us.”