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Fewer than half of Indiana school referenda passed, MCCSC was one

By Mary Kenney

When Monroe County passed an additional property tax that will help fund Monroe County public schools for the next six years, it did not follow the common trend for the rest of the state of Indiana.

Only six of the 17 school referenda proposed were passed.

More than 61 percent of voters in Zionsville, Ind. rejected a similar referendum, and 57 percent rejected it in the Center Grove school district.

Terry Spradlin, associate director of education policy at IU’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, said this has to do with the still-poor economy and high unemployment rates.

He said people are resentful of the government since unemployment remains at about 10 percent, and voters are unwilling to pay more for government services.

Spradlin also said it was difficult to persuade people to vote to increase their taxes when the question that preceded the referendum on the ballot sought to cap taxes.

“On one hand, voters were voting to cap taxes so that they don’t exceed certain limits, and the following question was an exception to that,” Spradlin said. “Most were motivated to vote for the first question but saw the conflict between the two

In nonpresidential elections, Spradlin said the voter turnout is usually the older generation, who live on fixed incomes and do not have school-age children.

This may also have hurt the chance of success for referenda throughout the state.

Though the national and state trend was to reject school referenda, Spradlin said other local factors attributed to each county’s decision, such as communication by school leaders about proposed budgets.

“Each school district probably had their own set of issues and challenges,” Spradlin said.

Dr. John Ellis, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said construction referenda were the hardest to convince voters to support.

Ellis said the state has placed a gag order on school leaders, preventing promotion of needs for building funds. They are not allowed to discuss the shortfalls or proposed budgets of construction costs during the workday.

“It makes for a much tougher sell,” Ellis said. “People don’t understand that you can’t respond because of a statutory thing.”

Ellis said this needs to be changed. Voters are unable to help their students if school leaders cannot provide information on students’ needs.

He said one of the biggest challenges is to repair decaying buildings as well as equip them with modern technology.

“We don’t want our students leaving the building not recognizing equipment in the workplace because the schools are 10 years behind,” Ellis said.

Dr. John Coopman, superintendent of Monroe County Community School Corporation, said he believes the referendum passed here, despite the state trend, because Bloomington voters recognize the value of public education.

“Without quality public schools, businesses move out, new businesses don’t seek opportunities to locate in Monroe County and people move out, which results in declining property values,” Coopman said.

He said MCCSC has been in the bottom 18 percent of the state in regard to per pupil funding since 1973 and has worked hard to overcome this.

“There remains great instability in educational funding since the state of Indiana moved to supporting the general fund via sales and income taxes,” Coopman said.

Spradlin said the next chance for referenda to be passed would be in a special election held next November, in an off-election year.

He said it would be good because voters would be completely focused on the issue.
Following the turnout from this election, however, he said he doesn’t know which way the majority of votes would go if special elections were in the future.

“It’s not promising,” Spradlin said.

He said staff cuts, school closings and the reduction or elimination of extracurricular activities and electives are on the horizon for the school corporations that will not be receiving funds from the additional tax.

“In most cases, school districts were just trying to maintain the status quo,” Spradlin said.

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