School districts developing appetite for referendums

2013-02-24T00:00:00Z 2013-04-30T18:08:05Z School districts developing appetite for referendumsCarmen McCollum carmen.mccollum@nwi.com, (219) 662-5337 nwitimes.com

Three local school corporations are joining a growing number of school districts asking for a property tax increase as they wrestle with state budget cuts to education.

On May 7, the School Town of Munster, and the Metropolitan School District of Boone Township and the Union Township School Corp., both in Porter County, will be asking for a tax increase in voter referendums.

After a law was changed in 2008, the state assumed funding for each school corporation’s general fund through an increase in the sales tax. Before that, schools were supported by property taxes.

But the Great Recession that began in 2008 hindered sales tax revenue -- which in turn reduced funding for schools.

Educators also said their budget problems were caused as a result of statewide cuts to education during former Gov. Mitch Daniels' administration.

Superintendents and school boards have thought "long and hard" the past few years about the benefits and consequences of a referendum, said Terry Spradlin, associate director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University at Bloomington.

The chances for a general fund referendum passing are about 50-50 in Indiana, Spradlin said, while a construction referendum has a 40 percent passage rate among Indiana schools.

A general fund referendum asks for money to support the general fund budget, which mostly pays for salaries and benefits along with classroom programs. A construction referendum pays for new construction and renovations.

Spradlin said voter appetite for referendums, which peaked in 2010, is mixed as districts watch the new makeup of the Statehouse.

"Right now, school corporations are trying to see what's going to happen with funding from the Indiana General Assembly," he said.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence presented legislators with a two-year budget plan that reduces the personal income tax rate and increases funding for education by 3 percent. However, local school superintendents say of that 3 percent, less than half a percent goes toward K-through-12 education, and that includes funding for full-day kindergarten, vouchers and charter schools.

Indiana Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, disagrees.

He said legislators were doing their "level best" to adequately fund students. However, Kenley said superintendents and school districts are selling general fund referendums as a way to assist the budget shortfall.

"We believed school districts would go to their communities and ask for more money to provide for additional programs," he said. "If the community wanted more, they could vote for more programs through a referendum. The question they (school districts) will have to face eventually with the public is whether it's an issue of money, or how that money is used."

Kenley said construction referendum are working just as they should.

"There have been many instances where school buildings were lavish in nature. We felt the taxpayers needed to have a say in that, providing a check-and-balance system on construction," he said.

Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, said it becomes about community involvement.

"When you have the local voters involved in decisions about construction or the general fund, it's an education process," he said.

 

Not every community can pass a referendum

Valparaiso Community Schools Superintendent Mike Berta said there is a lot of variety among communities, and the state has an obligation to provide children with a quality education.

"That's a state responsibility that requires leadership and decision-making at the state level, so that it's fair and equitable across all school districts in Indiana," Berta said.

Berta the district is not looking at a referendum right now. He said administrators study every vacancy -- retirement or resignation -- to determine whether to replace with a new hire or redistribute those duties and responsibilities.

"Those actions have assisted us in keeping our general fund under control," Berta said. "We are very attentive to what's happening in the General Assembly. We may have to do a construction referendum, and that's just another reason to proceed cautiously."

Echoing Berta's observations, Union Township Superintendent John Hunter said the state's requiring local taxpayers to vote on a referendum allowed Daniels to "wash his hands of it, saying he didn't raise taxes, you did it to yourself."

Only school systems in wealthier communities will go after general fund referendum, Merrillville Community Schools Superintendent Tony Lux said.

"That's a horrible future for low-income areas, urban areas and communities where disadvantaged kids go to school," he said.

School City of Hammond Superintendent Walter Watkins said it puts districts like Gary, Hammond and East Chicago "behind the eight ball."

Watkins said those communities simply don't have the tax base to support a referendum.

"If we did that, we'd be asking people who are already struggling to take more money out of their pocket and help the school district to survive. It would be hard for us to do, but if the state continues to reduce funding, it may be something we'd have to pursue," Watkins said.

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