In terms of importance, an election night without final results falls low on the list of COVID-19's ill effects. It was reassuring, nonetheless, to know one outcome seemed clear Tuesday night: Voters residing in the Fort Wayne Community Schools district overwhelmingly supported its $130 million building referendum.
With 14,007 votes cast in person on Election Day and in early voting at the Grand Wayne Center, there were 10,400 votes cast in support of REPAIR FWCS. The $130 million repair work is planned at 37 schools, including major renovations of Wayne High School and Blackhawk Middle School. More than 74% percent of voters supported the referendum, an even greater margin than the first two building referendums, in 2012 and 2016.
With mailed-in ballots still being counted Thursday afternoon, there were 20,581 votes in support of the referendum; 7,564 against it. Still an overwhelming margin of support.
The support is notable, given thevirus-driven unemployment and economic uncertainty facing voters. Many property owners also received higher tax bills last month, as local property values have grown.
But district officials had a solid record to share with voters. Renovation work done over the past eight years focused on the essentials: secure entrances; plumbing, heating and roofing repairs; energy-efficient windows. The renovated schools are no Taj Mahals, but they are safe and better-equipped to serve students and staff.
Fort Wayne wasn't the only school district to see referendum success Tuesday. Sixteen of 18 referendums passed statewide, reversing a downward trend in approval rates over the past two years. Purdue University professor Larry DeBoer, a property tax expert who tracks school referendum data, noted this week the current recession appeared to have had no effect on results.
“In the depths of the Great Recession in 2009, only six of 21 referendums passed (29%). But was that the effect of recession, or inexperience with school referendum campaigns?” DeBoer wrote in a Twitter post. “This time 13 of the 18 referendums are offered by school corporations that have won before. The recession had no effect, as far as I can see.”
Washington Township Schools in Marion County asked voters to approve the largest school construction referendum in the state's 12-year referendum history, at $285 million, plus another $128 million operating referendum. They approved both by wide margins. Likewise, South Bend Community Schools saw voters eagerly approve building and operating referendums totaling $274 million.
“The school corporations who waged their campaigns in what had appeared to be unsurmountable odds are to be especially commended,” said Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association. “The bottom line takeaway is that Hoosiers support public schools and want high-quality education for our kids.”
Interestingly, one of the two failing referendums was for school security improvements at New Albany-Floyd County schools in southern Indiana. The addition of school safety referendums was the Indiana General Assembly's half-hearted response to a classroom shooting at a Noblesville middle school two years ago. Rather than adequately funding Indiana schools, legislators gave school districts authority to arm their teachers or ask property owners to pay more for school resource officers, mental health services and security cameras.
Making sense of voter intent in this strangest of election years is difficult. But at first blush, it appears Indiana voters enthusiastically embraced the idea of maintaining and improving their public schools. What a concept.