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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