Across Indiana, in more than a dozen different school districts over the past year, taxpayers have sent a message to administrators: We are no longer giving you a blank check.
Since last year, when a new state law began requiring public referendums for big expenditures by school corporations, voters have said “no” at least 60 percent of the time in more than 20 special elections requesting tens of millions of dollars.
This phenomenon was on full display Nov. 3, when three local school districts—Beech Grove, Franklin Township and Perry Township—turned to voters for bailouts. Only Beech Grove was successful in convincing voters it deserved the extra help.
There’s no doubt such rejections have created difficult decisions for many school districts, but that is exactly what the new law was supposed to do—force administrators to examine their budgets and start making smarter decisions about spending.
Taxpayers much prefer to live in districts with well-funded and effective schools, so it’s unlikely they’re taking these referendums lightly. Unfortunately, we’re living in a time when people are struggling to make ends meet. And there’s little patience for districts that have repeatedly made boneheaded and wasteful decisions regarding high-salaried superintendents, opulent buildings and overpriced sports facilities.
When Gov. Mitch Daniels began pushing for property-tax reform several years ago, he noted one disturbing fact: Indiana’s school-building projects resulted in construction costs 46 percent higher than the U.S. average.
“We should strengthen taxpayers’ direct say in local decisions,” he said at the time, “especially the borrowing for new schools and other construction, which has been the biggest driver of property-tax increases.”
The idea was to give those most familiar with their districts more control while creating a mind-set among education leaders not to take tax dollars for granted. It’s a tough new reality that’s not going to sink in overnight.
Chances are voters will become a little more forgiving after the economy improves and as administrators show more willingness to be fiscally responsible. District leaders could improve their standing with taxpayers by making fewer threats about teacher cuts and more promises to trim fat from administrative offices.
And the Indiana Legislature could be more helpful in these matters by reviewing a flawed funding formula that provides far fewer dollars on a per-pupil basis to fast-growing districts than it does to those with falling enrollments.
One of those districts, Hamilton Southeastern, is preparing a lawsuit against the state that seeks equitable distribution of pupil funds. In the meantime, the district has its own $38.5 million referendum planned for Nov. 10. It, too, has made some poor financial decisions in the past, and wants a bailout.•
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