Larry DeBoer
Professor of
Agricultural Economics
Purdue University

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School Referenda Splits

In the election this May, Indiana school districts proposed seven tax and building referenda. Five passed. Tax referenda ask voters to approve property taxes for general purposes. Capital projects referenda ask for added taxes to pay for new construction.

There have been 88 referenda since November 2008. That was the first election after Indiana's big property tax reform. The reform required referenda for school building projects and changed school finance in ways that also may have encouraged more tax referenda. Forty-two, or 48 percent, of those 88 referenda have passed. You can see them on the Indiana University Center for Evaluation and Education Policy's Database of Indiana School District Referenda at ceep.indiana.edu/DISR.

In baseball, analysts look at numbers using "splits." What's a hitter's record in day games and night games? At home and away? Against righties and lefties? In New York, after the redeye flight from San Francisco?

Let's do splits for school referenda. For these, I won't count the referenda before November 2009. The referenda process was new in November 2008, and it is possible voters weren't fully informed about them. Then, there were 12 referenda from January to June 2009. Back then, school corporations could hold referenda at any time. Now they're restricted to May and November. And the economy was in free-fall in the first half of 2009. I suspect those referenda aren't consistent with what's happened since.

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

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

In May elections, 23 of 38 referenda, 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. These voters may not know about the school referenda. May elections bring out parents. Referenda 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. Curiously, rates above 15 cents don't seem to make much more difference. Half of the 16 referenda with rates above 50 cents have passed, not much different from the 44 percent that passed with rates between 15-50 cents.

There have been 36 school referenda in counties with per capita incomes above $35,000. Of those, 23 passed, which is 64 percent. There were 35 referenda 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. Richer communities may end up with better-funded schools and newer facilities. Poorer communities won't.

How about the referenda in May 2011 and since? Eighteen of the last 28 referenda, 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 that school officials have become more sophisticated in their campaign efforts.

There have been six referenda 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 that their small districts will consolidate with bigger districts if they don't get added funds. Are voters willing to pay to keep their local identities?

Every six months there's another set of referenda, so we can keep testing all these hypotheses. It's almost like science! Let's see, how about referenda results when the superintendent is less than 6 feet tall and the school mascot is a mythological beast? I'll just check…



Writer: Larry DeBoer
Editor: Cindie Gosnell