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.”
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.
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.”
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.
And 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.
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.
One striking factor Continue reading
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
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.
Voters in the Monroe County Community School Corp. district sent a strong message of support for public education in Tuesday’s election. They voted 61 percent to 39 percent to raise property taxes in order to provide stable school funding for the next six years.
This is remarkable, given the anti-tax and anti-government storm that was blowing through Indiana.
Similar school-funding referenda were voted down in nine of the 13 Indiana districts that tried them, according to the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. And a statewide ballot initiative to enshrine restrictive property-tax caps in the state constitution passed by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
It would be easy to conclude Bloomington and Monroe County make up an island of enlightened support for education in a red sea of taxophobia. But remember that, in 1999, MCCSC voters overwhelmingly rejected a school-funding referendum.
One difference this time was an aggressive and organized campaign to make the case for the tax increase, enlist supporters and get them to the polls. MCCSC Superintendent J.T. Coopman spoke about the referendum to every group that would listen. Volunteers canvassed neighborhoods, put out yard signs and made get-out-the-vote phone calls, just like in any political campaign.
They effectively delivered the message that the referendum was about “needs,” not “wants.” Continue reading
Three-fourths of Indiana school districts eliminated jobs this year as a result of reductions in state education funding, according to a survey by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.
Of the districts that cut jobs, 88 percent eliminated teaching positions. Eighty-four percent eliminated non-certified staff, a category that includes service and maintenance employees and instructional assistants.
The online Survey on School Corporation Financial Management Issues was conducted between June 23 and July 23 by CEEP in partnership with the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents and the Indiana School Boards Association. Some 204 of Indiana’s 292 school superintendents answered the survey, a 70 percent response rate.
Terry Spradlin, CEEP’s associate director for education policy, presented the results Aug. 30 to the Indiana General Assembly’s Interim Study Committee on the School Funding Formula. The survey provides a snapshot of how Indiana schools are responding to the sluggish economy and, in particular, to Gov. Mitch Daniels’ decision in December 2009 to reduce school funding by $297 million this year.
More than half the districts said in the survey that they expect to cut jobs in 2011-12. The survey was conducted before Congress approved legislation that provides Indiana with $207 million Continue reading
Here’s something to keep in mind with the approach of a November tax referendum to support the Monroe County Community School Corp.: Even if we pass the referendum, the MCCSC property-tax rate will still be well below the state average for schools.
Rates for 2010 for most local taxing units in Indiana are available in a report from the Department of Local Government Finance. It says that the average property-tax rate for Indiana school districts is $1.02 per $100 assessed property value. The MCCSC rate is 57 cents per $100 assessed value.
The referendum would give the school board the authority to increase the rate by as much as 14 cents. If nothing else changed, that would make the MCCSC property-tax rate 71 cents per $100 assessed value – still 30 percent lower than the state average.
It’s important to remember, of course, that school taxes aren’t the only property taxes we pay. There are additional property-tax rates for city, county and township government, public libraries, solid waste districts, etc.
It’s also noteworthy that, since the 2008 Indiana “property tax reform” legislation took effect, our property taxes don’t support the school general fund, Continue reading