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Indiana schools seeing more success with tax hikes

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Indiana school districts that won voters' approval last week for the majority of the tax increases they had sought to boost school funding may be becoming more skilled at selling the public on the need for those tax hikes, say experts who've tracked Indiana's school referendums for several years.

Five of the seven referendums on last Tuesday's ballots around Indiana were approved by voters, and one of the two losing districts may seek a recount after its measure failed by only four votes.

That scorecard is part of an improving track record for school referendums seeking property tax increases to pay for school construction projects or shore up cash-strapped general funds. State lawmakers in 2008 established referendums as the mechanism for school-funding requests in response to taxpayers' outcry about property tax growth.

In the first two years, from November 2008 to November 2010, only 24 of 60 school-funding ballot measures — or 40 percent — won passage. But since May 2011, voters have endorsed 64 percent (18 of 28) of tax increase requests, said Larry DeBoer, a Purdue University agricultural economist who studies local government and public policy.

"So while the overall record is about 50-50, the fact is that lately nearly two-thirds have been passing, and I can give you a half-dozen hypotheses," he said.

DeBoer said one explanation may be that school officials are giving the public increasingly sophisticated pitches about why they need more money. Another is that voters are more willing to help out their local district now that the economy is emerging from the deep recession that prompted Indiana to cut $300 million in public school funding.

He said lawmakers' decision a couple of years ago to loosen tough restrictions that limited school superintendents' and school board members' ability to publicly campaign for the referendums may have also made a difference.

Frank Bush, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, agrees with DeBoer's assessment.

"They didn't open this 100 percent, but they did make it more flexible," he said.

Northwestern Indiana voters approved a property tax increase last Tuesday that will boost the School Town of Munster's general fund in the wake of $5 million in difficult cuts over the past three years, said Maureen Stafford, the district's director of instructional programs and assessment.

She said the tax increase will support teacher salaries and programs for the district, which has about 4,000 students.

"If we hadn't won this, there would have been devastating cuts," Stafford said.

Superintendent Richard Sopko rallied volunteers, school board members and teachers in a push that included canvassing neighborhoods and calling residents to let them know about the importance of the proposed tax increase, Stafford said, calling it "quite an extensive project."

Terry Spradlin, director of education policy with the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University, said the referendums have shoved superintendents into the unfamiliar role of trying to sell the public on a tax increase.

"Superintendents have to wear another hat and be somewhat of a politician to run these campaigns because they are indeed political campaigns," he said. "It takes a campaign plan and a campaign strategy to get them passed."

Other measures that passed Tuesday included requests by Hamilton Southeastern and Noblesville school districts — both in suburban Indianapolis — for $95 million and $28 million, respectively, for construction projects.

But the Metropolitan School District of Boone Township, a small district in the northern Indiana community of Hebron, saw its referendum seeking an additional $530,000 a year for seven years fail by just four votes. More than 1,000 were cast.

Superintendent George Letz had sought the increase to avoid possibly laying off teachers and imposing other cuts. He said the district will consider whether to seek a recount.

Letz said a citizens group, school officials and other volunteers had pushed hard to convince residents to support the property tax increase, even canvassing neighborhoods to get the word out.

"They worked very hard and we had many, many meetings but in the end it was four votes," he said.

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  • David
    Millions FROM public schools, TO vouchers to subsidize private schools. Watching the impending failure one of the institutions which actually help knit communities together is now a spectator sport for the right wing crowd that built everything themselves.
  • Need is there
    School corporations need and deserve the opportunity to communicate - and inform - the public about its budgets, including the ability to make a case for a referendum. Ever since the property tax caps were put into place, millions of dollars have been wiped away from local governments, most notably our schools. That said, school boards and superintendents have the responsibility to exhaust every other reasonable option before asking for additional support. But, to do otherwise and NOT support our local schools does a tremendous disservice to our children and it poses a threat to maintaining a higher quality of life for the community as a whole.

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  1. Now if he'd just stay there...

  2. Daniel - what about the many US citizens who do NOT follow what the Bible teaches? The Hindus, Jews, Muslims and others who are all American citizens entitled to all rights as Americans?? This issue has NOTHING to do with "What the Bible says..." Keep all Churches separate from State! Pence's ongoing idiocy continues to make Indiana look like a backwards, homophobic state in the eyes of our nation. Can't we move on to bigger issues - like educating our kids?

  3. 1. IBJ should link to the referenced report. We are in the age of electronic media...not sharing information is lazy. Here is a link http://www.in.gov/gov/files/Blue_Ribbon_Panel_Report_July_9_2014.pdf 2. The article should provide more clarity about the make-up of this panel. The commenters are making this item out to be partisan, it does not appear the panel is partisan. Here is a list of the panel which appears to be balanced with different SME to add different perspectives http://www.in.gov/activecalendar/EventList.aspx?view=EventDetails&eventidn=138116?formation_id=189603 3. It suggests a by-pass, I do not see where this report suggests another "loop". 4. Henry, based on your kneejerk reaction, we would be better off if you moved to another state unless your post was meant as sarcasm in which case I say Well Done. 5. The article and report actually indicates need to improve rail and port infrastructure in direct contradiction to Shayla commentary. Specifically, recommendation is to consider passenger rail projects... 6. People have a voice with their elected officials. These are suggestions and do not represent "crony capitalism", etc. The report needs to be analyzed and the legislature can decide on priorities and spending. Don't like it, then vote in a new legislature but quit artificially creating issues where there are none! People need to sift through the politics and provide constructive criticism to the process rather than making uninformed comments in a public forum based on misinformation. IBJ should work harder to correct the record in these forums when blatant errors or misrepresentations are made.

  4. Joe ... Marriage is defined in the Bible ... it is mentioned in the Bible often. Marriage is not mentioned once in the US or Indiana Constitution ...

  5. Daniel - Educate me please: what does the Bible have to do with laws? If the government wasn't in the business of marriage to begin with, then it wouldn't have to "define" marriage at all. Marriage could be left as a personal, religious, or otherwise unregulated action, with no ties to taxes, legal status, etc. Then people could marry whomever they want, and all this silliness would go away. Remember to vote Libertarian in November.

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