Referendums give districts an edge on teacher pay

The Indiana legislature is calling on school districts to spend at least 45% of their state funding distributions on teacher salaries. Some districts will find it easier to meet the goal than others. One reason: referendums that let districts supplement state funding with local property taxes.

According to a December 2020 report from Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission, teacher salary costs as a share of state funding vary widely. In 2020, they ranged from about 30% in some districts to over 60% in others.

The report found that 109 of Indiana’s nearly 300 school districts paid less than 45% of their state funding for teacher salaries in 2020. (The figures are in Appendix 15). Those districts will have to increase teacher salaries – in some cases, significantly – or cut other spending to meet the legislature’s target. Collectively, they fell $52.4 million short of paying enough for teacher salaries in 2020.

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Good results for school referendums

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.

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Referendums help school districts, but not all of them

Voters in 10 Indiana school districts will go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to raise their own property taxes to help fund local public schools. It’s another sign that Indiana has become a referendum state, with districts turning to local taxpayers to do the job that legislators haven’t done.

'Vote Here' sign near polling place.But only some of them: 60% of Indiana school districts have never attempted a referendum.

That’s approximately 180 districts that haven’t turned to the voters for funding in the 10 years that Indiana has had school funding referendums. Maybe they haven’t needed the money; or maybe superintendents and school boards didn’t think the local voters were ready.

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School referendums may be reaching limit

I’ve written a lot about winners and losers in Indiana school funding, usually focusing on budget decisions made by the state legislature. But there’s another important divide when it comes to funding schools: between districts that pass local property-tax referendums and those that don’t.

And judging by this month’s elections, the number of referendum winners may be nearing its limit. Only six of the 10 school referendums that were on the May 7 ballot were approved. That’s a far lower rate than the 88% that passed between 2016 and 2018, according to data from Purdue University.

Under Indiana’s system of funding schools, money to pay teachers, staff and administrators and to fund most day-to-day operations comes from the state, appropriated by the legislature in the two-year state budget. Money for buildings and transportation comes from local property taxes.

But if schools need more operating money than the state provides, they can turn to local voters in a referendum. Continue reading

Bad bills may get better – or not

Two of the worst bills filed in this year’s Indiana legislative session are on the agenda Monday morning for a meeting of the House Education Committee. At least, they started out as two of the worst.

The authors of the bills have said they will offer amendments Monday to remove the most egregious provisions. But advocates for public schools and their students need to make sure they do that – and that the provisions don’t return somewhere later in the legislative process.

House Bill 1641, as introduced, would require public school districts to share the proceeds from property-tax referendums with local charter schools. It would also force public districts to sell unused building to private schools, most of which are religious schools, for half their value. Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education has a good explanation for why both are bad ideas.

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