Indiana voters show support for school fund increases

Report for America

INDIANAPOLIS — Voters across Indiana supported local schools the past week at a time when many are without jobs and uncertainties remain about economic losses fueled by the coronavirus pandemic.

On primary election day, 14 school districts sought voter approval to exceed statewide property tax caps for construction projects or other expenses.

Of 18 referendums on ballots, 16 passed, according to preliminary results. The high approval rate follows three previous and less favorable elections in Indiana when voters defeated at least one-third of such measures.

“It was a really a surprise that these referendums were so successful this time around,” said Purdue University economist Larry DeBoer, who has studied Indiana tax policy for about 30 years. “Voters were evidently a lot more optimistic than many expected.”

'Easier to' vote 'yes'

Operational referendums passed in 11 school districts. Five construction measures passed, too.

With approval for its third capital projects referendum, Fort Wayne Community Schools will use a $130 million bond to improve 33 buildings. The Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation’s approved tax rate increase will boost teacher pay, replace aging school buses and fund school resource officers. And in northwest Indiana, Hanover Community School Corporation’s success after asking residents to “vote yes twice” on two questions will extend existing funds for general educational needs and support new school construction.

Voters in St. Joseph County also passed two property tax increases worth a total of $220 million over the next eight years for South Bend schools, which officials said will expand prekindergarten, help with maintenance and security upgrades, give teachers raises and add counselors and social workers.

In the Indianapolis suburb of Beech Grove, two referendums totaling $22.4 million were greenlighted, allowing the district to hire more safety officers, build an early childhood center and give teachers $2,000 raises.

Residents of Indianapolis’ Washington Township voted in favor of a $128 million operating referendum slated for teacher salaries. A $285 million construction measure — the largest school construction referendum in Indiana history — also passed. The district, which has passed five referendums in the last decade, will build a middle school, renovate aging facilities and finish other construction projects.

“These outcomes are much more like they were a couple years ago,” DeBoer said, referring to May 2018 when all 12 referendums on ballots passed. “That’s a real surprise given all that’s going on now.”

Steep declines in state revenue and rapidly increasing unemployment rates caused by the coronavirus pandemic were expected to affect voter turnout and sentiment, DeBoer added, “but that doesn’t seem to have made any difference.”

In 2009, only six out of 21 referendums passed. In part, poor turnout was due to the recession, DeBoer said, but it was also likely a result of inexperience among districts at proposing and passing referendums.

“The public now, they might be thinking this is going to be a short recession,” he said, “but it might also just be that it’s easier now for people to vote ‘yes’ on these.”

Small district among winners

Also notable, said longtime education lobbyist Dennis Costerison, are the referendums passed by smaller districts. Barr-Reeve Community Schools in southwest Indiana — serving just under 1,000 students — passed its operational referendum. Western Wayne Schools, where declining enrollment has resulted in budget cuts, will use the passage of a new measure to better balance its budget over the next eight years.

Benton, Eminence, Lanesville and Union Township school corporations also passed operational referendums to support teacher retention and raises, vocational programming and maintenance of daily educational operations.

“The fact that it wasn’t just the larger districts seeing voter support –- or even those with more experience with referendums –- that’s really notable and very great to see,” Costerison said. “And all in the middle of a pandemic with so many unknowns.”

Additionally, voters in southeastern Indiana’s Clark County sealed the deal for West Clark Schools to divide the district in two. Board president Myra Powell tells the News and Tribune the district —which serves 4,700 students — will be “pioneers” in reorganizing itself: It’s the first time this type of measure has been used in Indiana and only the second time in the country.

Failed measures

Voters in southern Indiana rejected the New Albany-Floyd County school district’s proposed school safety referendum that would have funded additional resource officers, provided security improvements, expanded student programs to address mental health and offered school staff with safety training. The safety measure emerges from a 2019 Indiana state law passed in the wake of a school shooting at Noblesville West Middle School.

Crothersville Community School Corporation failed to pass an operational measure expected to net $820,000 a year for the next eight years.

Unknowns still ahead

The uncertain future brought by coronavirus still looms. School budgets rely significantly on Indiana sales and income taxes, Costerison said, “which is leaving us with a lot to worry about right now.” Because the pandemic closed large portions of the economy, cuts to education funding remain possible next spring.

For educators, that means unanswered questions in the push for improved teacher pay. Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambil said districts with failed referendums in the last year will likely be “in a very different place” than those that were successful, pointing to legislators to assist.

“Yes, the pandemic is posing challenges,” Gambil said. “But we’re maintaining that the state should not make any kinds of cuts to public education because we have to make sure that the schools – students and teachers – are taken care of.”

School districts that passed referendums could find themselves in “safer” economic positions months or years from now, Costerison said. But implications of the pandemic, coupled with the state General Assembly’s response next spring, “still leave us with a lot of unknowns.”

“In the future, I think more districts will be looking at referendums for additional funding,” Costerison said. “Knowing there are certainly fiscal issues that we may be facing, and potentials for budget reductions coming, it’s time to start prepping for what could be coming.”

Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.”

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