In the November election, the pass rate for school referendums statewide was the lowest since November 2014, prompting one expert in Indiana tax policy to ponder whether it’s a blip or a new trend.

On Nov. 5, 10 school districts had 13 referendums. Three districts had two referendums each.

Seven referendums, or 54%, passed and six, or 46%, were defeated, said Larry DeBoer, a Purdue economist and expert in Indiana tax policy who has studied trends in school referendums.

That was the third straight election with less than 70% of referendums passing — and that was after five elections in a row in which 80% or more passed.

“You’re wondering whether it’s just a blip in the data or whether it’s a new trend,” DeBoer said.

Since November of 2018, the pass rate has averaged 60% — 67% in November 2018, 60% in May 2019 and 54% in November 2019.

DeBoer’s “working hypothesis” suggests the success of the prior five elections in a row may have “created an optimism out there among school corporations. Perhaps some districts that in the past would have said we’ll never pass one of these, let’s not even try — [they] decided to try,” DeBoer said.

Those with a lesser probability of passing a referendum tend to have lower assessed value per pupil, or lower incomes and less wealth. They also tend to be more rural than urban, he said.

Districts with less assessed value per pupil tend to have to ask for a higher rate, and “higher rates do matter as far as being able to pass,” DeBoer said.

Experience counts as well, he said. Historically, school corporations that have tried before have a much higher win percentage than those trying for the first time.

Vigo County’s success

But, there were some surprises Nov. 5, including positive referendum results in Vigo and Scott counties.

“I can look at trends all day ... but in the end, these are local elections. Things that simply can’t be measured, or things I don’t have measures for, are going to matter,” DeBoer said. Those include the quality of the campaign, the attitudes of the people toward their school corporation and the popularity of the superintendent, he said.

He described Vigo as “a rookie, so that was a tough go.” It was a November election, and referendums tend to have more difficulty that month than they do in May. Also, Vigo has a relatively low assessed value per pupil, ranking 177th among 289 school corporations.

Other factors that could have hurt it included local tax increases to support a new jail and convention center, as well as public skepticism after a 2016 FBI raid on the school corporation and subsequent criminal charges against district employees, including bribery charges against the former district superintendent.

“And yet it [the referendum] passed,” he said.

One factor in Vigo’s favor was its relatively low proposed tax rate, at 16 cents per $100 assessed value. The dividing line seems to be 25 cents, DeBoer said. “Higher is tougher, and lower is more likely to pass.”

“Vigo had a lot going against it ... the fact it passed is worth noting,” DeBoer said. In July, he had suggested that all those factors — including a casino referendum on the ballot — created a “wild card” environment for the Vigo school referendum.

A sustained and accessible information campaign may have helped the Vigo County School Corp.

VCSC spokesman Bill Riley, said citizens attended more than 50 community meetings to learn about the operating-funds referendum.

“They heard why we needed a referendum to cover security, safety, and health costs, and they were able to provide meaningful input on additional spending cuts and revenue enhancement.

“We’re trying to build a culture of community involvement and listening, and I think those opportunities were key for voters to understand how we need to address declining enrollment,” he said.

A political action committee was formed, and the consulting firm Winston-Terrell also advised the district.

“This community loves its schools,” Superintendent Rob Haworth said during a news conference after the election results were known. “In the end, I think seeing the connection between schools and a community that’s prosperous won tonight.”

In Scott County

Another surprise was the successful referendum in Austin, located in Scott County, where two-thirds of the school district’s 1,200 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals and the town’s poverty rate is 25%, almost twice the state average, according to School Matters.

The community also had an HIV outbreak a few years ago, the result of people sharing needles to inject drugs.

Despite those factors, the district asked for a 91-cent tax rate, and it passed with 55 percent voting yes.

“How about that?” DeBoer said.

Scott County School District 1’s construction referendum authorizes the district to spend up to $20 million to build a new elementary school, convert an out-of-use swimming pool to a multi-purpose room, and replace the roof on the high school.

School referendums getting failing grades

“There was no arguing the need,” said the district’s superintendent, Trevor Jones. Part of the building was constructed in the 1930s, and it also had security issues.

“The community has always very much supported the schools,” Jones said. “There was nothing frivolous.” A political action committee was formed, and the referendum never had organized resistance.

“I spoke wherever I could speak,” he said. “We were prepared, we had signs put out, we worked the polls, we had a Facebook page to overcome misinformation. We were very transparent,” Jones said. School board meetings were webcast live on Facebook.

The big tax hike will be in place for a few years. But as current debt is repaid, in about six years, “then we will go back to tax neutrality,” Jones said.

A consultant’s perspective

The Winston-Terrell Group worked with the VCSC on its successful referendum. “It turned out well,” said Robin Winston, president of the government and public affairs consulting firm.

To achieve success, “A lot of it depends on how much the community is involved in the referendum process. You have to get the community involved early on,” he said.

District leaders must be consistent, accessible and transparent, Winston said. “You have to make those priorities.”

Also, “You’ve got to get the word out to all divergent and diverse interests in the community. You can’t rely on just the school community; you must get leaders at the neighborhood level, the business level and folks all over,” he said.

In Vigo County, he gave much credit to Haworth’s leadership. With all of the factors working against the referendum, to have it pass with 54 percent of the vote “is phenomenal,” Winston said.

He believes that with the Red For Ed movement, the public is becoming more aware and informed about the need for improved public school funding.

In the future, if the General Assembly does not address the funding problems and teacher pay issues, people may be more likely to pass referendums, he said.

Winston also believes it’s important for the public to know there is no state funding for school construction. At some point, schools need renovation or replacement, as well as security upgrades, given the times.

“The only way it gets done is through existing levies or a tax increase,” Winston said.

Referendums can be more difficult to pass in smaller, rural areas because “you have fewer taxpayers, so the cost per taxpayer is higher,” he said.

‘Something has flipped’

Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, agrees with DeBoer that “something has flipped and voter sentiment is not as enthusiastic of supporting these initiatives.”

The downward trend might be because of economic indicators that point to a future recession.

“Maybe voter sentiment is that times are not as robust economically and Hoosiers are not doing as well in their pocketbooks,” Spradlin said.

It’s also important to get the right message out when asking taxpayers for more money. “There must be a compelling story of why the money is needed,” Spradlin said.

He lives in the Center Grove school district, where a $24.8 million operational referendum was defeated, with 64.3% of voters in opposition. The tax would have been 11.5 cents per $100 assessed value.

Spradlin believes the district erred in its messaging. In his opinion, it was too “militant” in that it focused on use of referendum proceeds for “live video surveillance system monitoring” and more SROs or school police officers.

“Most in our community perceive our schools to be safe and were alarmed that we would have to take such drastic measures rather then use the proceeds for programs that directly benefit students,” he said. Part of the referendum was for added mental health supports for students.

In terms of funding — both state and local — it’s been a challenging 10 years for schools, so districts are forced to consider referendums to maintain programs and services or to add something they see of value to the quality of education, Spradlin said.

Haves and have nots?

Some fear the use of referendums may be increasing inequities among districts and creating a system of “haves and have nots.”

DeBoer believes there is evidence suggesting that.

“I think it’s detectable already in terms of spending per pupil — the fact that the Carmel Clays and Zionsvilles of the world have such an easy time passing these referenda, whereas the Danvilles and Huntingtons do not.”

And that’s not to mention the more than half of all school districts that have never tried to pass a referendum.

There have been 123 separate school districts that have tried referendums, which is 43% of 289 districts. That means 57% have never tried.

Of the 123 that have tried, 79 have succeeded in passing at least one referendum, or 64%. Thirty-four school districts have won more than one referendum.

“Given places with higher ability to pay tend to vote yes more often than those with lesser ability to pay, I think we do have a potential equity problem here,” DeBoer said.
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