But the poll also shows Hoosiers aren't in favor of saving schools from more budget cuts by injecting them with extra property tax revenues. Respondents were asked whether they would support a referendum for school districts, one of the institutions most affected by revenue lost by the tax caps. Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed opposed a referendum in their school districts with just 30 percent in favor.
The News-Sentinel and NewsChannel 15 are partners in the poll and have exclusive questions within the poll. This is the third in a three-part series reporting the results. Fort Wayne Community Schools spokeswoman Krista Stockman said as a result of property tax caps in 2011, school districts in Allen County are expected to lose $8 million, a total estimated from numbers confirmed by each school district. FWCS will lose the most, $4.2 million, with Northwest Allen and Southwest Allen losing $1.6 million and $1.5 million, respectively. East Allen County Schools will see a decrease of less than $1 million because most of the property in the district is rural farmland, which has a higher cap and fewer taxing units.
Despite schools' lost revenue, only 21 percent of survey respondents were opposed to the caps, and 27 percent were unsure. Men were more likely to be in favor of the tax caps, and women were the most unsure. Downs Center Director Andy Downs said from other data he's seen, men are more likely to focus on economic issues like tax caps while women focus more on social issues.
But those voting in favor of placing caps on property taxes may see their bill increase anyway. “I would strongly emphasize that voters research the effects before voting for (tax caps),” said Jim Coplen, business manager for Southwest Allen County Schools. “Only a very small percentage of people see the benefits of them, and that's true in Southwest and in any other district.”
Both bus replacement and debt service funds have no cap, or maximum levy, on the amount districts can raise taxes. This means that if districts don't have enough money to pay their debt or buy buses because of property tax caps, they can increase property taxes. In fact, property owners in every district except SACS will likely see an increase on their tax bills because most districts must purchase buses this year under the state-mandated, 12-year cycle. NACS increased its bus replacement fund by $375,000 for the 2011-12 school year. Both FWCS and EACS increased bus replacement funds by about $1.7 million, according to budgets from each district.
If caps are made permanent, Coplen said next year districts won't see major changes because the caps were already law. But, he said if the assessed value of property remains flat or decreases with the caps in place, districts could be in real financial trouble with constituents hitting caps sooner.
Property taxes also support funding of the city government as well, and with caps in place, cities are seeing a decrease in their budgets that pay for services like public safety.
Gov. Mitch Daniels' $300 million in cuts to education in January was not to those property tax- supported funds affected by caps, but to districts' general funds, supported by state income and sales taxes. The only way for a district to increase its general fund, which pays employee salaries and benefits, is for voters to approve a referendum or property tax levy, a move that even the more educated Hoosiers opposed in the survey results.
While respondents aged 18-34 had the lowest percentage of all respondents opposing a referendum, Downs said he expected a stronger divide in young versus old respondents. He said voters in the younger age groups are recent graduates and more likely to have young children in public schools.
Coplen said he is not surprised by the poll results because of the generality of the question. “I would guess that most people wouldn't support a referendum without seeing a purpose or benefit.”
This was the first year that SACS began collecting on its second approved referendum, a $3.5 million property tax levy approved last year. The money supports the salaries and benefits of about 50 teachers, Coplen has said. Coplen believes a reason SACS was successful in gaining support for its referendum was because the district was diligent in convincing its constituents of the need of a referendum.
EACS Superintendent Karyle Green hopes her constituents will feel the same way.
After weeks of an informational campaign, voters in the district will go to the polls Tuesday to decide on a referendum to help pay for additional programs. But the levy has already faced opposition. New Haven City Council adopted a resolution earlier this week to formally oppose the district's referendum. Councilman Tim Martin, R-5th, said the levy would be “crippling” to businesses in the area.
Survey respondents across the state have indicated that they believe schools should become more financially responsible – without help from the state government or their communities, a move Downs said is not necessarily a bad thing.
“Schools have a very difficult challenge in front of them,” he said. “And it's not just because people are resistant to increasing property taxes. Their largest source of revenue (sales and income tax) is much more elastic. They are in a learning environment right now.”
Superintendent of Public Schools Tony Bennett said schools are being forced to re-examine how to get more education from available money. “We're going to have to make some difficult decisions to make sure what we spend our money on drives student performance,” he said. “The general population is not for being taxed more. This is not an issue we can spend our way out of.”
More InformationHow the poll was conducted
These results are from a survey of 1,600 people statewide who have voted or who are likely to vote. Four hundred of those surveyed live in the 3rd Congressional District. The poll was conducted by SurveyUSA for the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics. The News-Sentinel and NewsChannel 15 are partners in the poll. The poll, conducted Oct. 21 through Monday, has a statewide margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent and a margin of error at plus or minus 5 percent in questions pertaining to the 3rd Congressional District.