LARRY DeBOER: Crunching numbers on school referendums

2013-07-02T00:00:00Z LARRY DeBOER: Crunching numbers on school referendumsBy Larry DeBoer
July 02, 2013 12:00 am  • 

In the May election, Indiana school districts proposed seven tax and building referendums. Five passed.

There have been 88 referendums since November 2008. That was the first election after Indiana's big property tax reform. The reform required referendums for school building projects. Forty-two, or 48 percent, of those 88 referendums have passed. You can see them on the Indiana University Center for Evaluation and Education Policy's Database of Indiana School District Referenda at

Let's do splits for school referendums. For these, I won't count the referendums before November 2009. The referendum process was new in November 2008, and it is possible voters weren't fully informed about them.

So let's look at the 71 referendums in November 2009 and after. Thirty-six of those passed, which is 51 percent — just about half.

There have been 44 tax referendums and 27 capital projects referendums since November 2009. Fifty-two percent of the tax referendums have passed, and 48 percent of the capital referendums have passed. Not much difference there.

In May elections, 23 of 38 referendums, or 61 percent, have passed, while in November, 13 of 33 — 39 percent — have passed. November elections bring out voters for president, governor, Congress and the Statehouse. May elections bring out parents. Referendums are more likely to pass in May.

The tax rate seems to matter. Where the proposed rate is less than 15 cents per $100 assessed value, 11 of 16 have passed, which is 69 percent. At higher rates, only 25 of 55 have passed, or 46 percent. People are more likely to vote yes if they're not asked for too much.

There have been 36 school referendums in counties with per capita incomes above $35,000. Of those, 23 passed, which is 64 percent. There were 35 referendums in counties with lower incomes. Thirteen passed, which is 37 percent. Looks like people with greater ability to pay are more likely to vote yes. This might eventually create an equity problem.

How about the referendums in May 2011 and since? Eighteen of the last 28 referendums, or 64 percent, have passed, while 18 of 43 passed before then, just 42 percent. The school districts are having more success lately. Perhaps even a weak economic recovery encourages more yes votes.

Maybe voters want to make up for the state funding cuts that the recession required. Or it could be school officials have become more sophisticated in their campaign efforts.

There have been six referendums by very small school districts with fewer than 1,000 students. Five have passed. There's been one such referendum in each of the past three elections. They've passed with 65 percent, 74 percent and 83 percent of the vote — landslide wins. Maybe voters are concerned their small districts will consolidate with bigger districts if they don't get added funds.

Every six months there's another set of referendums, so we can keep testing all these hypotheses. It's almost like science!

Larry DeBoer is professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. The opinions are the writer's.

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