Election Day produced wins and losses for candidates across the state, but for public school districts seeking taxpayer support for operating expenses or new schools, it was all wins, no losses. Of 12 school referenda on Indiana ballots, 12 passed.
That's a far cry from 2009, when only six of 21 school measures were approved. While many factors are involved and each referendum is different, it's tough not to believe Hoosiers increasingly are recognizing state support for schools is falling short. And recognizing the value of education, they are stepping up to support them.
When the General Assembly overhauled state property-tax law in 2008, school general fund costs were shifted from property tax revenue to statewide sources of revenue. This meant schools could raise additional money only through a voter-approved referendum, wherein voters could support a property tax increase beyond circuit-breaker limits for additional operating revenue or for major building projects.
Since 2008, school districts in 176 referenda have asked voters to raise their own taxes. More than a third failed, but Purdue University Professor Larry DeBoer, a local government finance expert who tracks school referenda issues, noted last week the ballot measures are trending toward success. Since May 2016, just 12.5 percent have failed.
Superintendent Chris Himsel was on the winning side Tuesday, as voters in his Northwest Allen County Schools district voted 76 percent to 24 percent to support a building program, including construction of a new elementary school.
“We were working very hard to make sure people were informed and really understood the issues,” he said last week.
Proponents had to explain how the district's financing plans were structured so that bond payments for earlier projects would fall off as payments for the new project came due, effectively keeping tax bills flat.
Daniel Hile, superintendent of Smith-Green Community Schools, also saw a referendum victory in his Churubusco district. Almost 60 percent of voters in Whitley and Noble counties agreed to raise taxes for operating support. The district's state support has declined by more than $700,000 since 2009.
“Without this additional funding, we were looking at cuts – mostly teacher positions; maybe even some programs,” Hile said. “It was important for us to talk to our community and ask, 'Do you want us to keep cutting? What do you want us to do?' ”
While their referenda efforts were successful, both districts invested much time and resources.
Proponents hired consultants to advise them on referendum procedures and campaigning. School officials and parent and community volunteers had to explain the issues involved and urge residents to get out and vote. State law prohibits the district from using school resources for a referendum, so everything was done outside of school hours and off school property.
Himsel said he appreciated the opportunity to make the district's case and came away from it blessed “to know my family lives in a district that cares about kids.”
But he said he also wonders about what is lost in the process.
“There's a lot of time and resources given by a lot of people,” Himsel said. “That's a lot of time and effort and resources I think could have been better spent working with kids.”