Referendum results show flaws in school funding

Eight Indiana school districts asked their voters to approve more funding for education in Tuesday’s election. Four were successful and four weren’t. A quick look suggests what’s wrong with Indiana’s philosophy of relying on local property tax referendums to give schools the money they need.

The four districts where referendums were approved were Southwest Allen County Schools in the Fort Wayne suburbs; Westfield-Washington Schools in the northside Indianapolis suburbs; Monroe County Community Schools in Bloomington; and Southern Wells Schools in northeastern Indiana.

The districts where referendums failed were rural or small-town districts: Brown County Community Schools, Delphi Community Schools, Medora Community Schools and Wabash County Schools.

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Just say yes to school referendum

If you live in an Indiana school district where a school funding referendum is on the ballot … just vote yes. If your school district is asking for your vote, it needs the money. There’s nowhere to get it except through your local property taxes.

It’s never a slam dunk that your neighbors are going to pass a referendum. The question is near the bottom of the ballot, so many voters won’t scroll down far enough to vote. Some will think they don’t know enough to choose wisely; typically, there won’t have been much news coverage. And the wording on the ballot, dictated by the state, is bureaucratic and confusing.

It’s worse than confusing; it’s misleading. In the Monroe County Community Schools district, the ballot tells voters they are approving a 35% increase in their school property taxes. In fact, the increase will be no more than 15%, as I explained in a previous post.

Simplified, school funding in Indiana works like this: The state provides the money for operating expenses, including teacher and staff salaries; and school districts rely on local property taxes for construction, building and transportation costs.

But the state doesn’t provide enough money for schools to operate effectively, so it gives school districts an option: They can ask residents to vote to increase their own property taxes to provide more operating funds. Eight school districts – Brown County, Delphi, Fremont, Medora, Monroe County, Southern Wells, Southwest Allen and Westfield Washington – are doing that in the Nov. 8 election. A ninth district, Wabash County, is asking voters to approve a tax increase to pay for a school construction and renovation project.

I’ve heard several arguments for voting against the referendums. One is that the state, which has a $6 billion budget surplus, should be paying more to fund the schools, not local taxpayers. That may be true, but it’s not going to happen. Indiana legislators have shown clearly that their priority is keeping taxes low, especially for businesses and high-income individuals, not funding services.

Another argument is that local school districts aren’t spending their money wisely, so why give them more? In Monroe County, for example, some voters may quibble with the money that goes to athletic facilities. But facilities and building improvements are paid for from separate property tax funds. Districts couldn’t have used that money in the classroom even if they wanted to. And if you don’t like the district’s priorities, you can vote for different school board members.

Finally, some people will say they’re already paying too much in taxes and can’t afford more. That’s understandable, given the pressure that inflation is putting on family budgets. But Indiana remains a tax-averse state where officials tout low taxes as a reason businesses should locate here. The conservative Tax Foundation, which generally opposes tax increases, ranks Indiana ninth for its tax climate.

This doesn’t mean voters should give their schools a blank check to spend more money. For referendums, we should expect clear and through explanations of how the money will be spent. The Monroe County Community Schools district (where I live) wants voters to extend referendum funding that would otherwise expire Dec. 31. If approved, it will fund salary increases for teachers, hourly wage raises for support staff and programs for students.

The support staff pay increase is crucial. The district pays its paraprofessionals – who do crucial work in the classroom, especially with special-needs students – as little as $12 or $13 an hour.

Fortunately for Monroe County taxpayers, we can approve the referendum and still pay some of the lowest school property taxes in the state. The overall MCCSC property tax rate, if the referendum is approved, will be no more than 84 cents per $100 assessed property value. In the nearby Richland-Bean Blossom school district, which has a reputation for conservatism, the current rate is $1.08.

The problem with school funding referendums – and this is a real problem — is that they aren’t equitable. Only a minority of Indiana districts manage to pass them. Most don’t try, probably because they know they would fail. The system favors districts with a lot of valuable property on the tax rolls.

But that’s a reason to improve the state funding system, not a reason to vote against your local referendum. Voting yes will make life better for teachers, staff and – most importantly – students. That’s the reason to just do it.

School referendum language is ‘a lot misleading’

When I go to the polls this November, I will vote in a school funding referendum that – according to the language that appears on the ballot – will increase my property taxes for schools by 35%.

That would be a hefty increase if it were accurate, but it’s not. Not by a long shot.

"Vote Yes Nov. 8" banner
Detail from a Monroe County Community School Corp. referendum flyer.

The actual increase – the difference between the property tax rate that I now pay to the Monroe County Community School Corp. and the rate I will pay next year if the referendum passes – is about 15%.

But a 35% increase is what MCCSC officials have to advertise under legislation approved in 2021, and an interpretation of that law by the Department of Local Government Finance. Voters are getting misleading information, and school funding referendums could be harder to pass as a result.

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Small town beats odds, passes school referendum

Search the internet for Austin, Indiana, and you’ll find dozens of stories about drug abuse, HIV and Gov. Mike Pence’s belated declaration of a public health emergency. Here’s some good news from Austin. Last week, residents of this hard-hit Southern Indiana town bucked the odds and voted to increase their own property taxes to benefit local schools.

“The town really values the schools. They always have,” said Trevor Jones, superintendent of the local school district, Scott County District No. 1. “We’ve had a lot of issues in Austin the last five or six years, but the schools have been a real bright spot for this community.”

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IPS tax request in line with what other districts have approved

The Indianapolis Public Schools board decided this week to ask voters to approve $315 million in increased property taxes to help fund school operations. That may sound like a lot, but spread over eight years and for a district of IPS’ size, it’s a reasonable request.

It’s right in line with what school boards have been asking for in other districts around the state. And voters have increasingly approved those school-funding referendums.

The IPS operating referendum boils down to $39.4 million per year — about $1,300 per IPS student. Some districts, including West Lafayette, Tri-County and Munster, have won approval for more than that, per pupil. Other districts, including MSD Warren Township and Crown Point, have settled for less.

The IPS referendum would increase local property taxes by up to 28 cents per $100 assessed property value. That’s right in the middle of the 16 school operating referendums approved in the past year.

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Closing schools could lead to ‘death spiral’ for IPS

Indianapolis Public Schools just went through the difficult and excruciatingly painful process of closing three of the district’s seven high schools. Now the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce wants it to close more schools as a condition for getting business support for an upcoming school-funding referendum.

The chamber made the demand in an analysis of IPS finances that it released last week. The group said it is willing to support a modest tax increase to help fix aging buildings and give teachers and principals a raise, but only if the district agrees to cut nearly $500 million in spending over the next eight years.

That’s a huge amount — it’s more than a 15-percent reduction in spending, by my calculation. The chamber report never actually refers to closing schools (except in a footnote); it calls for reducing “excess seats.” But it’s clear that closing schools would produce the bulk of the savings. IPS officials say they would have to close at least 10 elementary or middle schools to make the cuts.

“At the end of the day, there are only a few ways to save money,” IPS school board member Kelly Bentley told me. “That’s closing schools and letting go of teachers.”

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No time for complacency on school funding vote

It’s tempting to think a referendum to continue funding the Monroe County Community School Corp. with a modest property-tax levy will pass this November with votes to spare – just as it did in 2010.

But that could be a mistake. This is a very different election year from the one six years ago. Contests for president and governor are on the ballot, a circumstance that will bring out more and different voters. An anti-establishment mood has swept the country, and that could hurt the MCCSC and its supporters.

Yes for MCCSC graphicAnd it’s likely that many voters will go to the polls with no idea a school funding referendum is on the ballot. The question will be at the bottom, below all the national, state and county contests. It’s important to inform education supporters that they need to vote.

So it’s good to see the school district’s supporters are treating this like a real election campaign. The pro-referendum election committee Yes for MCCSC held a kickoff rally Tuesday, complete with music, signs and talks by students, parents, teachers and officials. The group has put together an informative website. It has lined up support from Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton and others.

Importantly, the website includes a “supply closet” section that details how the referendum money will be used and a property tax calculator that shows what the impact will be on taxpayers.

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Indiana school-funding referenda go 3-for-7

This week’s primary elections weren’t very kind to Indiana school corporations that tried to increase property taxes in order to support education funding – with one significant exception.

Voters in the Metropolitan School District of Perry Township on the south side of Indianapolis approved two school-funding referenda. They approved a tax increase of 31 cents per $100 assessed property value to bolster the district’s general fund. And they approved a 14-cent tax increase for construction.

Other than that, school-funding referenda went 1-for-5. Voters in Franklin Township Community Schools, another Indianapolis suburban district located just east of Perry Township, rejected a general-fund tax proposal by a large margin.

Information on the May 2011 school-funding votes is available from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. It’s the go-to site for referendum information, including data for every initiative since the spring of 2008, when the current school-funding law took effect.

CEEP has also produced two policy briefs on Indiana school referendum activities, one from the summer of 2010 and the other from last winter, with another on the way in a month or so.

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The MCCSC referendum funding: An argument for doing what’s best for students

Someone claimed in the Bloomington Herald-Times that no one has come forward to say he or she voted for the Monroe County Community School Corp. referendum just so the school board could decide how to spend the money, or words to that effect.

Well, I cast one of the 18,701 votes in favor of the referendum. I urged my friends to vote for the referendum. I wrote on this blog that people should support it. I even stood in the cold on Election Day and told strangers they should vote to raise their taxes, even though some of them probably couldn’t afford a tax increase.

Why? Speaking only for myself, I wanted to restore lost funding so the MCCSC would have a better chance at meeting the needs of all of its students. I was encouraged when I heard Superintendent J.T. Coopman and board members say – on multiple occasions – that the referendum would support early-literacy and drop-out prevention programs. But I didn’t take that as a promise.

I assumed decisions about spending the money would be made in the same way that important school budget decisions should always be made: by a democratically elected school board in a public, transparent process that includes honest discussion and a free exchange of ideas and opinions. I hoped board members would respect the advice of MCCSC administrators and listen with an open mind to teachers, students, parents and citizens before making up their minds. Continue reading

Referendum spending a challenge and opportunity for MCCSC

Some initial thoughts on the Monroe County Community School Corp. budget committee recommendations on how to use $7.5 million a year from the recent property-tax referendum.

1 — This is an opportunity for the school board to get the process right. That means having all its discussions in public, however difficult and messy they may be.

The board shouldn’t hash this out behind closed doors on the rationale that it involves collective bargaining strategy. It is doing the right thing by getting input from parents, teachers and the public. It should listen to what people have to say, then do what’s best for students and the community and clearly explain the rationale.

2 – The budget committee report says improving student performance is its No. 1 priority. While acknowledging the central role of teachers, it calls for spending money in a way that will “provide the most meaningful benefit for our students and … reflect an honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of our school corporation.”

“If enhancing student performance isn’t our primary goal, then I think we’ve got a problem in this school corporation,” said MCCSC Comptroller and committee member Tim Thrasher. It’s hard to argue with that.

3 – The committee gets style points its “three Rs” approach: restore positions and programs that were cut, replenish the district’s operating balance, and reform instruction.

Best of all is using reform to describe investing in programs and personnel aimed at making sure young children learn to read and older students don’t fall through the cracks – reclaiming a term that has come to refer to charter schools, vouchers, teacher merit pay and union-busting.