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School referendums becoming common as districts grapple with tax caps

—By Kathleen M. Dutro
Public Relations Team

In recent elections, voters have seen a huge jump in the number of referendums on school funding. There’s a specific reason for this, said Katrina Hall, Indiana Farm Bureau’s state government relations director and tax specialist.

“The property tax caps are hurting more and more schools all the time,” Hall said. “The referenda are a way to overcome the caps.”

A total of 10 school funding referendums were on the ballot in Indiana’s May 6 primary election. Two of these were for what the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance calls “controlled project” referendums – that is, Hall explained, they are intended to fund a capital improvement project such as a school building.

The one that passed was for Elkhart Community Schools. It will fund various improvements to existing schools at an estimated cost of $19 million. However, a proposal to fund nearly $40.5 million in improvements for Madison Consolidated Schools in Jefferson County failed. It was defeated partly as a result of the efforts of the Jefferson County Farm Bureau, Hall said.

The reason the Jefferson County Farm Bureau decided to fight the referendum, said board member Dave Ferguson, is that the district already spends $1,100-$1,300 more in property dollars per student per year than any other schools in the area. That and other basic facts were the basis of a letter sent by Farm Bureau to all members in the affected townships.

“We stayed away from emotion,” Ferguson said, and stuck with the facts, using the school’s own information that Farm Bureau got from the Indiana Department of Education’s website. “They couldn’t punch holes in our information because it was their own information.”

Another thing that Farm Bureau did, Ferguson noted, was to work with other groups with an interest in controlling property tax increases.

The measure was defeated 77 percent to 23 percent, Ferguson said. But since the defeat, the school and Farm Bureau have started talking to see if they can find a more efficient way to get the school what it needs, he added.

Also on the May 6 ballot were eight “school tax levy” referendums, which are intended to help schools defray operating costs, Hall explained. “Voters are asked to make up a deficit with property taxes,” she said.

Seven of the eight passed: Concord Community Schools, Elkhart County; Elkhart Community Schools, Elkhart County; Eminence Community School Corp., Morgan County; Lanesville Community School Corp., Harrison County; Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township, Marion County; Mt. Vernon Community School Corp., Hancock County; and White River Valley School Corp., Greene County. The one that passed was for the Metropolitan School District of Boone Township, Porter County.

The current process for approving capital projects has been in effect since 2008. Forty-five percent have passed. In contrast, the referendum process for operating costs has been in effect since 1976, but it’s become much more common since the tax caps went into effect, Hall said. A total of 56 percent have passed since 2008.

“Since 2008, these have gone from being rare occurrences to being common occurrences,” Hall said, adding that this trend is expected to continue.

“We don’t know how many will be on the ballot this fall, but we’re anticipating that there will be several,” she said.

Those interested in finding more specific information on school referendums can find it on the DLGF’s website, www.in.gov/dlgf/, by clicking on “Referendum Information.”

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