Eight Indiana school districts will ask voters to approve property tax measures next month.
That includes two Indianapolis districts: Perry Township, which is seeking to renew a $154 million referendum, and Franklin Township, which is seeking $95 million to renovate its high school.
This will be the second election in which school districts put referenda on the ballot using new state-mandated language that emphasizes the percentage increase in school property taxes — a change that Education officials have criticized it as misleading.
Even so, some hope the state’s low unemployment rate and rising home values will convince voters to open their wallets.
“Now is the time to do it,” said Fred McWhorter, operations manager for Franklin Township Schools.
Early voting is underway ahead of the May 3 election. All referendums need a simple majority to pass.
Referendums after COVID
The number of ballot referendums rebounded slightly after the COVID economic downturn, during which schools and voters were reluctant to raise taxes.
Indiana has seen more referendums than ever in the spring of 2020, which were written before pandemic-related upheavals, said Larry DeBoer, a Purdue University professor emeritus who studies Indiana tax issues. In three elections during the pandemic, only seven referendums were offered and only four passed, he said.
Now schools face an uncertain economy, DeBoer said, and voting language that could cause sticker shock.
The change in tax rates that school districts must post could lead voters to believe that their total tax bill would increase by the amount shown, DeBoer said, when in reality it only affects the part of the bill that goes to schools.
Voters should know how much of their total tax bill goes to schools, then calculate the percentage change — perhaps in the voting booth, DeBoer said.
In Franklin Township, the wording of the ballot highlights a 24.4% increase in school property taxes. But the average homeowner’s overall tax bill would only increase by 10%, according to the district’s referendum calculator.
The language of the referendum is usually the most important for voters who have not studied the issue beforehand, he said. Some voters may be discouraged by the state-enforced length of language and choose to skip the question altogether.
“It’s an experiment,” DeBoer said. “I am for informed voters. But what’s the best way to do it? »
In general, May referendums pass at a faster rate than November referendums, he said, and districts that have already tried to pass a tax hike have better luck than those that try to. the first time, DeBoer said.
In Indiana, unlike some neighboring states, operational referendums passed at a higher rate than construction referendums, he said. The former can finance the running costs of a district for eight years, while the latter are intended for a specific real estate project.
Marion County Referendums on the Ballot
The Township of Perry is seeking to renew its 2015 operational referendum to support 20% of its teaching staff, as well as transportation for all students and a science, technology and math curriculum.
If passed, the referendum tax rate of 0.4212 per $100 of assessed value would remain the same. If the renewal fails, Perry’s property taxes would go down.
A new referendum would last another eight years and generate more than $19 million in revenue each year, Superintendent Pat Mapes said. The referendum would continue to pay 193 teachers, 20 vice principals, 17 technical positions and 14 teaching assistants.
This would allow the district to continue funding a popular STEM program for juniors through 12, Mapes said.
If voters reject the referendum, Perry would have to cut art, music, STEM classes, transportation and teachers. Class sizes would increase. More students would walk further to school.
“When you renew, you have already decided to support your schools,” Mapes said. “You know that strong schools equal a strong community.”
Six other school districts are asking local voters for operational support, including in Edinburgh, Griffith, Lebanon, Mt. Vernon and Valparaiso.
Lebanon is also asking for a referendum on construction, as well as schools in Vigo and Franklin Township.
Franklin Township is seeking to hold a building referendum primarily to fund expansions and repairs to its 50-year-old high school, as well as to make some small improvements to its elementary schools. The last district referendum — an operational issue in 2011 — failed, which district officials attributed to the economic downturn.
The district is the only one in Marion County that has not passed an operational or construction referendum before.
McWhorter, the chief operating officer, said enrollment has increased by 1,800 students in five years and will likely increase further with new construction in the area.
The high school needs new plumbing and HVAC systems, and a new roof, which alone is expected to cost around $7 million, he said.
The Township of Franklin used about $3.8 million of its federal emergency funding and $2 million in other funds to improve ventilation in elementary schools, McWhorter said. The district chose not to use federal relief funds for the high school because major repairs would take two years, beyond the timeframe for using the relief funds. The district received about $11 million in total in federal ESSER dollars.
The referendum would raise taxes by 0.2099 per $100 of assessed value and generate about $95 million. For a home with a Marion County median value of $185,700, the annual increase would be $185.67, according to the district calculator.
If the referendum fails, McWhorter said the district would not be able to repair and maintain the facilities, which would continue to deteriorate.
“Growth doesn’t go away, aging facilities don’t go away,” McWhorter said. “What we can promise is that it won’t be cheaper later.”
Aleksandra Appleton covers Indiana education policy and writes about K-12 schools across the state. Contact her at [email protected]