Indiana House GOP ‘exploring options’ to postpone school tax referendums, including for IPS

Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston addresses lawmakers during Organization Day at the Statehouse, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Indiana House Republicans are mulling legislation to delay local referendums to increase school property taxes until the fall election, a move that could have major implications for a rebuilding plan for Indianapolis Public Schools.

House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said Tuesday his caucus is concerned about costly tax increase proposals being placed on the May 2 primary ballot given the uncertainty surrounding property tax bill increases after a year of record inflation and soaring home values.

“We’re exploring options to make sure people don’t move forward with spring referendums in a world where there’s this much uncertainty,” Huston told IBJ.

Rep. Bob Behning, chair of the House Education Committee, said one of the options being explored involves passing legislation to delay all referendums until the November general election.

Doing so would ensure that Hoosier homeowners aren’t footing an even larger property tax bill while also addressing long-term concerns about referendums being held during primary elections, which typically have lower turnout than general elections, he said.

“I generally think it ought to be in the fall of a general election because you’re going to have more participation in the process,” Behning said.

The move comes as IPS looks to advance a ballot measure to increase property taxes above the state’s property tax cap to support more than $400 million in operating expenses as part of the district’s re-organization effort known as Rebuilding Stronger.

The plan to address declining enrollment amid a boom in charter schools involves closing six buildings, expanding academic offerings, increasing teacher pay and reconfiguring grades throughout the district.

The school board already approved a separate $410 million ballot question for capital expenses as part of the planned overhaul, potentially bringing the total cost of the referendum proposals to $810 million.

The funding requests need to be voted on by referendum because they would exceed the state’s property tax caps, which mandate that property tax bills can’t be more than 1% of assessed value for owner-occupied homes, 2% for other residential properties and farmland and 3% for all other property.

IPS officials have said the increase would amount to a $72 annual increase in property tax payments for the average homeowner in the district.

The Rebuilding Stronger plan has faced pushback from charter school advocates, including the 18 charter schools that are part of the district’s Innovation Network.

Under a current revenue-sharing proposal, the charters would receive roughly $1,000 for each student compared to about $1,900 for traditional public school students. Independent charter schools not affiliated with IPS wouldn’t receive any funding.

Charter supporters have said IPS’s latest revenue-sharing offer still treats charters unfairly.

Behning has also filed legislation that would require districts to share tax revenue gained through referendums with charter schools. If the bill passes, it wouldn’t become law until June 30, 2023, but if Republicans can successfully delay the referendums until the fall election, it could mean that IPS would be forced to share more money with charter schools.

Any House legislation to delay referendums would likely go through the Ways and Means Committee, Behning said. Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, who chairs the committee, said he wasn’t aware of discussions to prevent referendums from getting on May ballot.

Rep. Greg Porter, an Indianapolis Democrat and the ranking minority member on Ways and Means, said he was concerned that Republican moves would siphon away more resources from already cash-strapped school districts such as IPS.

“School corporations have referendums in order to pay teachers and for capital needs, and for the supermajority to entertain taking away another tool in the toolbox to educate—I find it somewhat despicable,” Porter said.

Sen. Travis Holdman, who chairs the Senate Tax & Fiscal Policy Committee, said he would consider the idea if it advances out of the House but was hesitant to endorse the proposal. Holdman has introduced legislation to establish a commission to examine the feasibility of phasing out the personal income tax and reforming the state’s complex property tax system.

The last time IPS asked for a referendum came in 2018, when voters approved a $272 million tax increase for the district to fund teacher pay raises and upgrades to school buildings.

IPS officials did not respond to a request for comment. The district faces a Feb. 17 deadline to certify the two ballot measures and place them on the May ballot.

School districts’ success in winning referendums for new property tax revenue in last fall’s election was spotty. Statewide, four of eight referendums were defeated.

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6 thoughts on “Indiana House GOP ‘exploring options’ to postpone school tax referendums, including for IPS

  1. What hypocrisy – most of the suburban rings have already held such referendums to fund Zionsville, Carmel, Fishers schools etc. but now that IPS want to do the same Todd Fisher is concerned.

  2. Just another of the many examples of Republican state legislators wanting to subvert the democratic power of the peoples’ vote. It’s surprising they don’t just simply suspend the Indiana state constitution altogether and embrace autocratic state rule because that’s in essence what they are doing with this topic. There is nothing “grand” about the old party any more.

  3. So the GOP wants public schools to request even higher property taxes so that charter schools get some of that money?

    Charters promised to do a better job of education for LESS money. They haven’t kept either promise. To add insult to injury, now they are somehow financing expensive television ads saying they need the same amount as public schools.

    Charters turn away (or counsel out) the kids who are more expensive to educate – special ed. and non-English speaking students. Charters don’t provide vocational education or transportation. Charters are concentrated at the less expensive elementary and middle school levels rather than the more expensive high schools. AND charters get to buy closed, multi-million dollar public school buildings for $1 – you read that right – one single dollar, without paying the public district for the expense they’ve underwritten to build and maintain that building or to reimburse the district for the property on which the closed building sits.

    Charters also have not faced the same accountability for their poorer performance that traditional public schools have been required to face.

    Charters have not fulfilled their promise. Instead of trying to finance 3 different kinds of school systems – traditional public schools, charter schools, and vouchered private schools and not doing well by any of them – let’s put all tax dollars back into traditional public schools and finance excellence again with highly qualified teachers who receive salaries high enough to pay off their college loans, buy a home, and send their own children to college. We’ll start to reverse Indiana’s brain drain when education is truly valued.