Unemployment is at record levels in Indiana, with hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers out of work. A recession is coming, likely to be deeper than the last one. It seems like a bad time to call for a tax increase.
But voters in 12 school districts approved referendums Tuesday to raise money for school operating expenses and building projects. Yes, they said, raise our property taxes. Because we want to support our students.
Four of the districts passed both operating and building referendums. In all, 16 of the 18 referendums that were on the ballot won approval.
The 89% success rate reverses a trend in which fewer referendums passed in recent years. In the previous three election cycles, November 2018 and May and November 2019, no more than two-thirds were approved. Tuesday’s results were “much more like the 100% pass rate in May 2018, despite the recession,” wrote Larry DeBoer and Tamara Ogle, school finance experts at Purdue University.
Just two referendums were defeated. An operating referendum in Crothersville Community Schools fell 60 votes short. The only school safety referendum on the ballot, for New Albany-Floyd County schools, also lost.
Operating and construction referendums were approved for Beech Grove, Hanover (Lake County), Washington Township (Indianapolis) and South Bend schools. Also, operating referendums were approved for Barr-Reeve, Bartholomew County, Benton Community, Eminence, Lanesville, Union Township (Porter County) and Western Wayne schools. Voters in the Fort Wayne Community Schools district approved $130 million for renovations.
The successful districts were varied. They ranged from the tiny (Eminence, 364 students) to the large (Fort Wayne, almost 30,000 students). Some asked for big increases in the tax rate, and some asked for small increases.
In general, referendums have been more successful in spring primary elections, when voter turnout is low and schools can mobilize their supporters. Spring referendums can fly under the radar, the thinking goes. But in South Bend, there was organized opposition led by Larry Garatoni, who chairs the board of the city’s Career Academies charter schools and who has given over $700,000 in the past 20 years to the campaigns of Indiana Republican politicians and conservative political action committees.
Even so, 60% of the voters approved the South Bend operating referendum, which will raise $20.8 million a year for eight years; and 57% approved the construction and renovation referendum, which will raise $54 million.
It may be that increased advocacy for public education is making a difference, including last November’s massive “red for ed” rally at the Statehouse. Maybe voters are realizing that Indiana public schools have been underfunded. Or maybe referendum supporters simply did a good job of telling their story and getting voters to the polls.
It’s good news that so many referendums were approved at a time of economic uncertainty. “I think that this is very encouraging to all school districts in the state,” Denny Costerison, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials, told Chalkbeat Indiana.
Even so, it’s worth noting that over half of Indiana’s school districts have never tried to pass a referendum. In many cases, that’s because school officials know they aren’t likely to succeed. Local property tax referendums are great, when taxpayers can afford them; but they are no substitute for adequate funding of public schools by the state.