Voters in 10 Indiana school districts will go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to raise their own property taxes to help fund local public schools. It’s another sign that Indiana has become a referendum state, with districts turning to local taxpayers to do the job that legislators haven’t done.
That’s approximately 180 districts that haven’t turned to the voters for funding in the 10 years that Indiana has had school funding referendums. Maybe they haven’t needed the money; or maybe superintendents and school boards didn’t think the local voters were ready.
According to the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, 62.6% of referendums have passed. Success rates are higher in cities and suburbs and lower in towns and rural areas.
A report issued last month by the state Legislative Services Agency found that school districts with the highest per-capita income are most likely to attempt referendums. Surprisingly, districts with the lowest per-capita income are second-most likely to try, with districts in the middle less likely.
“Higher income school corporations may need to make up for relatively low state funding due to their low complexity index,” the report says. “Low-income school corporations may find it challenging to pay teachers due to declining enrollment and tax cap losses.”
Another factor is the value of taxable property in a school district. Districts with high property wealth can raise good money with a small increase in the tax rate. Districts with low wealth would have to ask for a bigger rate increase, and voters would be more likely to balk.
Most Indiana school operating costs, such as employee salaries and benefits, are paid by the state, while districts use local property taxes to pay building and transportation-related costs. Districts can ask voters to approve tax increases to supplement the operating money they get from the state. They also need voter approval for major construction projects.
School funding in Indiana is fairer than in states that rely heavily on local property taxes. The inequalities aren’t as savage here as in, say, Illinois. But the increasing use of referendums has made funding less equitable. Students in districts that can’t or won’t pass a referendum may be left behind, resource-wise.
On Tuesday, Danville, Huntington and Zionsville school districts will have both construction and operating referendums on the ballot. Lawrence Township (Indianapolis), Scott County No. 1 (Austin) and Washington schools are asking for approval of construction projects. Center Grove, Hamilton and Vigo County (Terre Haute) want increases in operating funds. Carmel-Clay will have a referendum for school safety.
For the Danville, Huntington, Lawrence, Scott County, Washington and Vigo County districts, it’s their first time to ask voters to approve a referendum.