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Schools weigh options after voters nix tax hikes

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School districts across the state continue to struggle in their attempts to win voter approval for operating money or building projects, which a researcher attributes to continued worries about the economy.

Four of the seven school referendum questions that were on the ballot were defeated during Tuesday's primary, according to Indiana University's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

More than 80 percent of the voters in the Oak Hill United school district voted down a proposal to fund construction of a $28 million school that would have brought all elementary grades together under one roof. Leaders of the district split between Grant and Miami counties some 50 miles southwest of Fort Wayne don't know what they'll do next.

"I have an estimate on my desk for $138,000 to replace 1959 water equipment," district Superintendent Joel Martin told the Chronicle-Tribune of Marion. "Can we find the money? Do we do preventative maintenance or do we find money to replace equipment? That all has to be decided."

The school referendum process has only been around in Indiana since 2008, when a state law was passed letting voters decide whether to give more money to school districts.

Oak Hill district resident Chris Jackson said he voted against its tax request because he didn't see enough justification for it.

"We know there are repairs that need to be made," Jackson said. "We want to see reasonable estimates for what needs to be done. Let's see what it will actually cost to repair things."

Voters have rejected 40 of the 67 school referendums in that time, but districts will likely continue asking for property tax increases since state funding isn't keeping up with their costs, said Terry Spradlin, director of education policy at the IU center.

Besides the Oak Hill rejection, voters also defeated referendums for Franklin Township schools in Indianapolis, the Avon school district and the North Adams Community Schools in Decatur. Voters approved requests from the Crown Point schools and requests for operating and construction increases in the Perry Township district of Indianapolis.

"The results are indicative of shaky consumer confidence and the economy," Spradlin said. "And still, an anti-tax increase climate remains."

Crown Point School Board member Scott Angel said voters' approval of the additional money will help avoid the potential layoffs of 48 teachers and demonstrated support for the schools.

"There'll be no cuts. Everybody should be able to retain their jobs," Angel told The Times of Munster.

In Franklin Township, more than 60 percent of the voters opposed a tax referendum after a similar request lost there in 2009.

District Superintendent Walter Bourke said the results closely followed the demographics of the area in that the majority of residents don't have children in the school system.

Bourke said he expected the district will move forward with plans to cut about 80 teaching jobs, close three schools and eliminate bus transportation.

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