If the state won’t do it, we will. That’s the attitude driving a proposed property-tax referendum in the Monroe County Community School Corp.
Superintendent Jeff Hauswald laid out the rationale at a meeting Wednesday. He said the referendum will pay for free or reduced-price pre-kindergarten and cover educational costs that families now pay out of pocket, such as fees for Advanced Placement exams and career and technical education classes.
The MCCSC school board voted unanimously Tuesday to authorize Hauswald to go forward with plans for the referendum, which would raise property taxes by up to 8.5 cents per $100 assessed property value. It comes on the heels of a referendum that voters approved last November. The 2022 referendum raised teacher and staff pay while the 2023 vote will be “family-centered and community-focused.”
“We know it’s the right thing to do,” Hauswald said. “So, can we do it locally? Well, we’re going to ask our taxpayers.”
I’ll admit my first reaction to hearing about another referendum was that maybe the timing could have been better. I’d just paid my property taxes; they went up by more than 20%, entirely because the assessed value of my property rose. Then I got my assessment notice for next year’s taxes; the property value went up again, so my taxes may rise once more. On the other hand, if I’m going to pay higher taxes, it makes sense to face the medicine when property is increasing in value. And we’re fortunate, in Monroe County, that it is, for many of us.
I also wondered why the MCCSC didn’t include its family and community needs in the November 2022 referendum, saving itself the trouble having to go back to the voters just a year later. Hauswald had a persuasive answer: Legislators dropped the ball.
Officials thought that, with plenty of money available, the General Assembly might adequately fund public education, including early childhood education and career and technical education. Instead, lawmakers chose to extend a private school voucher program to wealthy families, at a cost of $1.1 billion, and to significantly raise funding for charter schools, which are privately operated. Rather than boost career education costs, they dreamed up a voucher-like “career scholarship account” program that seems more geared to the wishes of businesses than the needs of students.
The legislature did expand On My Way Pre-K, Indiana’s modest pre-kindergarten program, but only by a little. They extended family eligibility from 127% to 150% of the income cutoff for receiving reduced-price school meals. That will cost the state $5 million, in a budget of $44.5 billion. And it will leave many families out in the cold when it comes to high-quality preschool. “Some families, even if they can afford it, they can’t find the space, because everybody has waiting lists,” Hauswald said.
Despite On My Way Pre-K, Indiana remains one of a half-dozen states that don’t offer comprehensive, state-funded preschool, according to guidelines from the National Institute for Early Education Research.
MCCSC officials thought they might be able to fund some of these needs with the 2022 referendum. Then the legislature took an axe to that as well. House Enrolled Act 1499, a “property tax relief” law adopted with overwhelming bipartisan support, caps revenue increases from school referendums at 3% in 2024. So, even if the assessed value of property in the district grows dramatically, revenue from the referendum will increase only a bit. And anyone who has driven through Bloomington recently – and seen the high-end apartments being built – knows that total property values are rising by a lot.
The positive result is that, with property values going up, tax rates will go down. While the referendum is for a tax rate increase of 8.5 cents, Hauswald guessed the actual increase will be only about half that, and that a typical homeowner will pay about $50 more a year if the referendum passes.
Even with an increase, MCCSC will have some of the lowest school tax rates in the state: again, because of the high assessed value of property, especially commercial and rental property.
According to an MCCSC slide presentation, the 2023 referendum would generate:
- $2.5 million to provide free pre-K for 3-year-olds in families that qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.
- $3.5 million to provide pre-K for 4-year-olds, free to low-income families and at reduced rates for others.
- $1.25 million for instructional supplies and testing fees that are now paid by families.
- $1.25 million for career and technical education fees and expenses that fall on families.
As Hauswald said, and as I’ve written a number of times, it’s a shame that Indiana school districts have to pass referendums to meet the basic needs of their students and staff. The system creates haves and have-nots: districts that pass referendums and those that don’t. And most don’t even try.
“To be clear, there’s nothing equitable about school funding in Indiana,” Hauswald said. “We would rather have full and adequate funding at the state level … But the state has said, nope, we’re not going to do that.”
And if the state won’t, and we can afford it, why shouldn’t we?
Disclosure: I have three grandchildren in MCCSC schools, so I can’t claim to be unbiased. I don’t know if they will benefit from this referendum, but their classmates will, and that’s good enough for me.