INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana school districts that won voters' approval last week for the majority of the tax increases they had sought to boost school funding may be becoming more skilled at selling the public on the need for those tax hikes, say experts who've tracked Indiana's school referendums for several years.
Five of the seven referendums on last Tuesday's ballots around Indiana were approved by voters, and one of the two losing districts may seek a recount after its measure failed by only four votes.
That scorecard is part of an improving track record for school referendums seeking property tax increases to pay for school construction projects or shore up cash-strapped general funds. State lawmakers in 2008 established referendums as the mechanism for school-funding requests in response to taxpayers' outcry about property tax growth.
In the first two years, from November 2008 to November 2010, only 24 of 60 school-funding ballot measures — or 40 percent — won passage. But since May 2011, voters have endorsed 64 percent (18 of 28) of tax increase requests, said Larry DeBoer, a Purdue University agricultural economist who studies local government and public policy.
"So while the overall record is about 50-50, the fact is that lately nearly two-thirds have been passing, and I can give you a half-dozen hypotheses," he said.
DeBoer said one explanation may be that school officials are giving the public increasingly sophisticated pitches about why they need more money. Another is that voters are more willing to help out their local district now that the economy is emerging from the deep recession that prompted Indiana to cut $300 million in public school funding.
He said lawmakers' decision a couple of years ago to loosen tough restrictions that limited school superintendents' and school board members' ability to publicly campaign for the referendums may have also made a difference.
Frank Bush, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, agrees with DeBoer's assessment.
"They didn't open this 100 percent, but they did make it more flexible," he said.
Northwestern Indiana voters approved a property tax increase last Tuesday that will boost the School Town of Munster's general fund in the wake of $5 million in difficult cuts over the past three years, said Maureen Stafford, the district's director of instructional programs and assessment.
She said the tax increase will support teacher salaries and programs for the district, which has about 4,000 students.
"If we hadn't won this, there would have been devastating cuts," Stafford said.
Superintendent Richard Sopko rallied volunteers, school board members and teachers in a push that included canvassing neighborhoods and calling residents to let them know about the importance of the proposed tax increase, Stafford said, calling it "quite an extensive project."
Terry Spradlin, director of education policy with the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University, said the referendums have shoved superintendents into the unfamiliar role of trying to sell the public on a tax increase.
"Superintendents have to wear another hat and be somewhat of a politician to run these campaigns because they are indeed political campaigns," he said. "It takes a campaign plan and a campaign strategy to get them passed."
Other measures that passed Tuesday included requests by Hamilton Southeastern and Noblesville school districts — both in suburban Indianapolis — for $95 million and $28 million, respectively, for construction projects.
But the Metropolitan School District of Boone Township, a small district in the northern Indiana community of Hebron, saw its referendum seeking an additional $530,000 a year for seven years fail by just four votes. More than 1,000 were cast.
Superintendent George Letz had sought the increase to avoid possibly laying off teachers and imposing other cuts. He said the district will consider whether to seek a recount.
Letz said a citizens group, school officials and other volunteers had pushed hard to convince residents to support the property tax increase, even canvassing neighborhoods to get the word out.
"They worked very hard and we had many, many meetings but in the end it was four votes," he said.