Indiana school-funding referenda go 3-for-7

This week’s primary elections weren’t very kind to Indiana school corporations that tried to increase property taxes in order to support education funding – with one significant exception.

Voters in the Metropolitan School District of Perry Township on the south side of Indianapolis approved two school-funding referenda. They approved a tax increase of 31 cents per $100 assessed property value to bolster the district’s general fund. And they approved a 14-cent tax increase for construction.

Other than that, school-funding referenda went 1-for-5. Voters in Franklin Township Community Schools, another Indianapolis suburban district located just east of Perry Township, rejected a general-fund tax proposal by a large margin.

Information on the May 2011 school-funding votes is available from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. It’s the go-to site for referendum information, including data for every initiative since the spring of 2008, when the current school-funding law took effect.

CEEP has also produced two policy briefs on Indiana school referendum activities, one from the summer of 2010 and the other from last winter, with another on the way in a month or so.

One striking factor about this week’s votes was the big margins. Voters in the North Adams Community Schools district in northeastern Indiana rejected a general-fund tax proposal by 86 percent to 14 percent. Oak Hill United Schools, a small district near Marion, voted down a construction project, 82 percent to 18 percent.

In other results Tuesday, Crown Point Community Schools in northwestern Indiana approved a general-fund referendum, and Avon Community Schools on the west side of Indy rejected one.

Franklin Township voters turned down the proposal even though schools officials said that, without it, they will close three schools, cut 81 teaching jobs and limit transportation. But the proposal was for a big tax increase: 75 cents per $100 assessed value, to raise an extra $13 million a year for seven years.

By contrast, the general-fund referendum approved last fall in the Monroe County Community School Corp. in Bloomington raises taxes only 14 cents per $100 assessed value, and produces $7.5 million a year in revenue. A strong tax base seems to improve the odds of passing a referendum.

Overall, however, Indiana schools are facing challenging times. The $300 million that Gov. Mitch Daniels cut from school funding in December 2009 has become part of their “new normal.” And some districts are finding their construction, maintenance and transportation budgets pinched by state-imposed caps on property tax rates.

Referenda were supposed to provide a local option for more generous school funding. But so far, only about 40 percent have been successful. And the climate is likely to get tougher: Check out House Enrolled Act 1238, just approved by the legislature, which essentially prohibits school corporations from advocating for funding proposals that they want voters to approve.

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