Referendum success rate was typical

Ten Indiana school districts had property-tax referendums on the ballot in last week’s elections, and seven of them passed. That’s a typical success rate.

In the past 10 years, voters have approved 132 school district funding referendums and rejected 51. That’s an approval rate of 72%. There was speculation that inflation and talk of rising property taxes could dampen voter support this year, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

Indiana has two primary types of school funding referendums. Districts must get voter approval to raise property taxes to pay for expensive construction and renovation projects. They can also ask voters to raise property taxes to help pay for school operations if they conclude state funding isn’t adequate.

This year, the big story was a construction referendum to pay for Indianapolis Public Schools’ Rebuilding Stronger initiative. Approved with 59% support, it provides $410 million over 30 years for upgrades to 23 schools, including an addition to Arlington Middle School and a new building for Joyce Kilmer School 69. It involves closing six schools, reconfiguring grades and adding academic and extracurricular programs.

IPS dropped plans for a separate operating referendum in the face of resistance from business groups and from charter-school advocates who argued it would make funding less equitable.

The other referendums last week were all operating referendums. Two Indianapolis districts – Warren Township on the east side and Speedway on the west side – won approval, as did Mishawaka, Munster, Clinton Central, and Tri-County school districts.  Referendums failed in the Fremont, Highland and Tri-Creek districts. (Results are available on the Indiana Secretary of State’s website).

Indiana established school funding referendums in 2008, and, initially, the measures were about as likely to fail as to pass. Over the years, superintendents and school boards have become more adept at persuading voters. They came to understand that a referendum is essentially an election campaign, requiring fund-raising, a political action committee and a sophisticated communications strategy.

Source: Indiana Department of Local Government Finance

Another strategy that seems effective: Scheduling referendums during May primary elections, when voter turnout is typically low. Over the past decade, 91 of 115 referendums in the spring have passed, a success rate of 79%. In November general elections, 41 of 68 referendums have passed, a rate of 60%.

From descriptions on the Department of Local Government Finance website, it appears this year’s successful operating referendums extended property-tax increases that were approved previously and were about to expire. That is, voters didn’t vote to raise their taxes but to keep them the same.

Starting this fall, districts in Lake, Marion, St. Joseph and Vanderburgh counties will share revenue from operating referendums with charter schools under a law that the legislature approved last month. Seven of the districts that had referendums last week are in those counties: IPS, Warren Township and Speedway in Marion; Highland, Munster and Tri-Creek in Lake; and Mishawaka in St. Joseph.

The problem with referendums is that they create winners and losers. Most districts never try to pass a referendum, because their leaders know it would be an uphill battle. It would be far better if Indiana provided generous and fair school funding rather than expecting districts to appeal to voters for help.


1 thought on “Referendum success rate was typical

  1. Pingback: State won’t properly fund education. Voters can. | School Matters

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