Hamilton County schools worry how voter turnout will impact referendums

April 28, 2016

The increased interest in Indiana’s primary could impact school funding for two Hamilton County districts.

Hamilton Southeastern Schools and Noblesville Schools are proposing referendums on the ballots next week to supplement operating funding for the next seven years.

HSE is asking for approval of a tax rate of 22.75 cents per $100 of assessed value. The district’s existing 10-cent tax rate that voters approved in 2009 expires at the end of the year. For a $250,000 home, the new rate would result in an annual tax of  $303, according to the state’s referendum impact calculator.

Noblesville Schools' proposal would continue its existing operating referendum that voters approved in 2010 but reduce it from the existing 21 cents to 18.9 cents per $100 of assessed value. For a $200,000 home, the cost would be about $190 per year, which is close to $23 less than the property taxes imposed under the existing referendum. The median home value in Noblesville is $172,000.

Both districts received a boost in state funding in the latest budget, but still rank among the bottom for funding per pupil statewide. HSE receives $5,175 per student, ranking it as the third-lowest in the state, and Noblesville receives $5,358 per student, which puts it in the bottom 10 percent.

“What we received last year really just stopped the bleeding,” HSE Superintendent Allen Bourff said.

HSE is the fourth-largest school district in the state with 20,825 students enrolled in 2015. Noblesville has close to 10,000 students.

“I think what people don’t realize is referenda are now part of the school funding formula,” Noblesville Schools Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer said. “That’s the new norm.”

Typically, general fund referendums have had better luck in the spring. Out of the 69 general fund referendums that have been proposed in Indiana since 2009, 40 were in the spring and 72 percent were approved.

Out of the 29 referendums on fall ballots, only 38 percent passed.

Voter turnout is typically lower in primaries, with mostly dedicated party members going to the polls. This year isn’t expected to follow that trend now that Indiana’s primary is seen as a crucial step for candidates in the presidential race. The state GOP primary is seen as the last chance to prevent front-runner Donald Trump from securing the 1,237 delegates needed to seal the party’s nomination before the convention.

“We thought there’d be more informed voters in the primary,” Bourff said. “The uninformed voter is unlikely to vote 'Yes.' … We’re very concerned.”

Early voting numbers are already higher than usual in Hamilton County. As of April 20, more than 3,100 voters had cast a ballot, compared to 1,370 in 2012 and 1,600 in 2008 around the same time.

“This could potentially have a lot of voters,” Niedermeyer said.

The number of eligible voters has increased in Hamilton County. More than 220,700 residents are registered to vote, compared to 178,000 registered voters before the 2010 primary when Noblesville’s existing referendum was approved.

If the HSE referendum fails, the district would lose the extra $7 million it’s receiving from the 2009 referendum. District officials say that would cause 50 teaching positions to be cut in the first year and another 50 in the second year, along with eliminating 26 support staff positions.

If it passes, officials say, the estimated $17 million in annual funding would allow the district to hire 43 new teachers, reduce class sizes, lower participation fees and add assistant principals at elementary schools.

If the Noblesville referendum fails, the district says it would lose $6 million annually, forcing it to cut 150 jobs, including all levels of staff members, administrators and teachers. That would be a 10 percent reduction in staff.

“When you have to cut that deep, that’s going to make a significant impact,” Niedermeyer said.

Despite all the extra attention—and potentially extra voters—for this election, school leaders are extremely limited in how they can campaign.

No school equipment can be used, including paper, computers and printers. School email is off limits, which also means the parent email list cannot be used. Students can’t be sent home with information about the referendum, and school officials cannot promote it on school grounds.

The limitations have pushed Niedermeyer and Bourff to each attend more than 60 meetings with neighborhood groups, religious organizations, the Rotary and Lions clubs and alumni associations.

“It’s just so hard to get people to come hear the message,” Bourff said.

The schools also rely on political action committees to send out flyers, spread information on websites and social media, and distribute campaign signs. Miller Yes has been promoting the Noblesville referendum, and Advance HSE has been advocating for the Fishers referendum.

The Educate Noblesville Political Action Committee, which is supporting Miller Yes, raised $10,660 this year to add to its existing $3,200. The PAC spent nearly $11,000.

The Advance HSE PAC started the year with $4,600 and collected an additional $14,640. The group spent $9,270.

The districts also have some support from business communities. The Noblesville Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the Noblesville Schools referendum, and OneZone—the combined chamber for Carmel and Fishers—is backing the HSE referendum.

“We felt this was just too darn important,” Noblesville Chamber president and CEO Bob DuBois said, mentioning the organization typically does not endorse campaigns. “We want our kids to excel, and to go to school and to come back and work here and live here.”


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