School referendums point to equity issues

School funding referendums were approved Tuesday in six of the eight Indiana school districts that asked voters to increase their own property taxes to help pay teacher salaries and other expenses. That sounds like strong support for public education.

But several successful referendums were in affluent communities where voters can afford to pay a few more dollars for the high-achieving schools that are key contributors to their property values. Referendums failed in two high-poverty districts – East Chicago and Cannelton – where students may have the greatest need for extra money.

The bigger issue is that most of Indiana’s nearly 300 school districts have never voted to raise local taxes to increase local school funding, and most probably never will.

Only about 40 Indiana school districts have approved school tax levy referendums since the referendum system began eight years ago. Most have never tried, because officials know the effort would probably fail. It’s not that people don’t support their local schools; it’s that the tax base is often so weak that it would take a big rate increase to make a difference – which could hurt many property owners.

Schools that voted Tuesday to continue property-tax funding included Carmel-Clay and West Lafayette, two of the lowest-poverty and highest-performing districts in the state. Tax levy referendums were also approved in the Munster, Tri-County, Sheridan and Lake Station districts. Of those, only Lake Station, a small district in northwestern Indiana, could be considered high-poverty.

In Cannelton, a tiny town on the Ohio River, voters were asked to reauthorize a 39-cent tax rate that they had approved seven years ago. The referendum failed, 73-70. The result is a loss of $90,000 a year, about 6 percent of the district’s operating budget.

In 2009, Indiana boosted state school funding and quit using local property taxes for school general funds, which pay salaries and general operating expenses. That should have made funding more equitable, but not necessarily adequate. So the state also authorized referendums in which voters could choose to augment state funding for the general fund with property tax increases.

Local property taxes continued to be the source of funding for school construction and maintenance and for transportation.

Meanwhile, legislators have given bigger funding increases in recent budget cycles to growing suburban districts at the expense of rural and urban districts – including districts like East Chicago, where most students qualify for free lunch, and where voters turned down a funding referendum Tuesday.

Officials in Carmel-Clay and other affluent suburban districts say they are still among the lowest-funded districts in Indiana. That’s true if you count only the money they get from the state. But if you add referendum dollars that many such districts have approved, per-pupil funding is well above average. (The same is true of Monroe County Community Schools, the district where I live).

And the fact that school districts still rely on local property taxes to fund school construction and maintenance can also produce inequities. It’s why the million-square-foot Carmel High School can boast an in-school café and market, a planetarium and modern athletic facilities with eight gym floors and a massive weight room – while some schools claim to struggle to fix leaky roofs.

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