As the May 3 Indiana primary approaches, ten school districts across the state are asking voters to raise taxes to fund school projects.
In November 2008, Indiana’s public school districts began posing more and more school funding questions to their communities on the ballot – should taxes be raised to fund a certain construction project or boost the district’s general fund? If a referendum passes, the property taxes increase by a specified amount for a specific period of time. They were rare before the property tax cap. Since November 2008, there have been 128.
It’s a part of the ballot that has significant impact on a local community, but voters often arrive at the polls with little information about their community’s referendum question and why it is there.
The ten referenda on the May 3 primary ballots span the entire state -- both big and small school districts and questions asking for both general funds and construction projects. Here are the ten school districts asking their communities for tax increases:
- Ft. Wayne Community Schools
- New Prairie United School Corporation
- Argos Community Schools
- Brown County Schools
- Hamilton Southeastern Schools
- MSD of Southwest Allen County
- Noblesville Schools
- School Town of Speedway
- Southern Wells Community Schools
- Wabash City Schools
REFERENDA TRENDS SINCE 2008
School referendum questions became a common ballot measure in Indiana back in 2008, after the legislature voted to enact property tax caps. The caps were written into the state constitution, and the amendment says the government may not collect taxes equaling more than 1-percent of the value of an owner occupied residence, 2-percent for other residential properties (such asfarm land) and 3-percent for all other properties (mostly businesses).
But school districts used to depend on property tax money, which began to shrink following implementation of the caps. Without it, many turned to referenda to supplement their income.
Purdue economics professor Larry DeBoer, studies local government budgets and has followed the trends with Indiana’s referenda since 2008. He says typically, school districts that pose their questions during the May primary, hoping smaller turnout will lead to better chances for success.
“About two-thirds of all the referenda passed in May have passed, but only 36-percent of those tried in November actually pass.”
His reason for the trend?
“What I think happens is – in a May election the folks who show up are motivated,” DeBoer says. “There’s often not much else happening in a May primary election to attract voters. But in an ordinary May election a school referendum may be the most important thing on the ballot.”
THIS ISN’T AN ORDINARY MAY PRIMARY
This year, more voters than usual will likely vote on May 3 because of the high stakes presidential primary. Because of this, DeBoer says a more diverse group of voters will likely go to the polls.
Typically during May primaries, the ‘motivated’ voters, as DeBoer calls them, are people who feel strongly for or against the referendum question and show up to vote. But this year, he predicts the voter turnout will likely mirror the group that turns out for general elections.
“These might be people who don’t realize there are referenda on the ballot,” he says. “It may mean that this May we have an election that’s more like November elections than they ordinarily might be.”
Which means more voters who haven’t heard of the referendum. DeBoer says these people often don’t have kids in the school system and can be more wary of raising taxes for something they don’t see a direct impact on.