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Results trickle in on election night for Indiana districts seeking referendums

The results of most Indiana school referendums remained unknown hours after polls closed on Tuesday, as election officials waded through a record number of mail-in ballots.

Two Marion County districts, Washington Township and Beech Grove, are among the 11 districts statewide that didn’t have results as of 10 p.m. Tuesday. Early results, however, showed voters favoring measures for both Washington Township and Beech Grove, as well as two measures in South Bend.

For school systems asking voters to approve an increase in property taxes, the stakes are especially high this year as the state faces steep declines in revenue due to economic shutdowns related to the coronavirus.

Some smaller districts did report results. According to the state, Barr-Reeve and Western Wayne Schools both passed referendums with 63% and 65% of the vote, respectively. New Albany-Floyd County Schools saw its safety referendum fail, with 52% voting against the measure.

A district that has passed a referendum will be in a better position if state leaders cut education funding next year. School budgets rely heavily on state sales and income taxes, which experts said leaves schools particularly vulnerable, given the recent spike in unemployment. Property taxes are more stable, and a successful referendum allows districts to boost their collection above the state cap.

Tuesday proved to be a strange Election Day — one pushed back by weeks due to the coronavirus. Many people arrived at polling places wearing masks and covering their fingers to avoid touching voting machines, and they faced long lines in parts of the state where there were poll worker shortages. The vote also coincided with protests across the country, including in Indianapolis, spurred by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

State officials previously warned it could take up to 10 days to get finalized election results as workers scramble to count hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots residents requested amid the coronavirus crisis. And it remains unclear how many absentee ballots may go uncounted due to postal service delays in Marion County.

By 10 p.m., only half of Marion County’s 22 sites had reported unofficial results, which didn’t give school leaders a concrete idea of where their districts stood.

“It’s unfortunate, but given the surge in absentee ballots and the [coronavirus], that’s the reality that we are under,” said John Fencl, Washington Township school board president.

With 50% of voting centers counted, residents were favoring Washington Township’s $128 million operating referendum, which would be used for teacher salaries, and $285 million construction measure — the largest school construction referendum in state history.

According to the district, the construction money would be used to build a new $72 million middle school, renovate aging buildings, and finish projects where construction costs have run higher than anticipated. Opponents, however, have called the ask “obscene” and “tone deaf,” in part because voters in the district approved two referendums in 2016.

The final results of Beech Grove City Schools’ $22.4 million referendum also remained unclear. District leaders said the money would be used to build a new early childhood center, hire additional school safety officers, and give teachers $2,000 raises.

“We feel good about what we saw in the lines today,” said Beech Grove Superintendent Paul Kaiser. “As people were going though, they were positive.”

School districts typically see success in passing a referendum during spring elections, but this year the coronavirus brought additional challenges. School buildings closed in March, in some cases canceling community meetings to discuss the measures, and stay-at-home orders hampered campaign efforts.

Experts said it could be especially difficult for school leaders to sell voters on approving an increase to their property taxes as unemployment skyrockets. Plus, some worried the virus could negatively affect voter participation.

In South Bend, WSBT reported that early results with about two-thirds of precincts reporting showed 57% of voters supporting the district’s operational referendum, which can be used for day-to-day expenses, and 54% supporting its construction referendum.

District leaders are asking voters to approve two property tax increases worth a total of about $220 million over the next eight years. The referendums, which would fund security updates and the hiring of more teachers, come at a critical moment for South Bend, following years of dropping enrollment and low standardized test scores.

But the measures faced opposition from the founder and board president of three local charters, who said the district does not have a clear enough plan to improve.

Voters were also set to decide a southern Indiana school district’s yearslong campaign to split in two. Leaders of West Clark Schools in Clark County successfully made their case for separating to the State Board of Education in November — a move that seemed at odds with the state’s history of pushing for consolidation.

The drastic decision came after decades of growing animosity between the communities, most recently spurred by anger over a failed $95 million referendum. Final results weren’t posted by press time.

2020 Indiana primary election results: How school referendums fared

Several school districts across Indiana appealed directly to voters in Tuesday’s primary election to raise additional funding by increasing property taxes. Here’s a list, as of 9:45 p.m. Tuesday, of which school referendums passed, which failed, and which are still waiting for results.

Passed measures:

Barr-Reeve Community Schools

  • Operational referendum, passed 62.6% to 37.4%
  • Tax rate increase: $0.25 per $100 of assessed value for eight years
  • To replace a 2013 referendum with a lower rate and continue funding small class sizes, athletics and extracurriculars; elementary music and gym classes; and school safety and mental health resources.

Western Wayne Schools

  • Operational referendum, passed 64.5% to 35.5%
  • Tax rate increase: $0.19 per $100 of assessed value
  • Expected total: About $500,000 annually for eight years
  • To maintain current educational programs and class sizes, restore programs that have been cut, and pay employees.

Failed measures:

New Albany-Floyd County School Corporation

  • Safety referendum, failed 52.5% to 47.5%
  • Proposed tax rate increase: $0.085 per $100 of assessed value
  • Expected total: About $3 million annually for eight years
  • To fund additional school resource officers; safety and security improvements; student programs to address mental wellness, addiction, anger management, bullying, and school violence; and professional development and training on proactive safety strategies.

Waiting for results:

Construction referendums:

Beech Grove City School Corporation

  • Proposed tax rate increase: $0.25 per $100 assessed value
  • Project total: $17.5 million
  • To renovate existing schools, including Beech Grove High School, and build the Hornet Park Early Childhood Learning Center.

Fort Wayne Community School District

  • Proposed tax rate increase: $0.1486 per $100 of assessed valuation
  • Project total: $8,652,375,911
  • To repair windows and rooftops and improve security at existing school buildings.

Hanover Community School Corporation

  • Proposed tax rate increase: $0.8351 per $100 of assessed valuation
  • Project total: $79 million
  • To build a new intermediate school building and for renovations to the middle school, high school, and resource center.

MSD Washington Township

  • Proposed tax rate increase: $0.3172 per $100 of assessed valuation
  • Project total: $285 million
  • To finish construction of a new middle school and repurpose the former middle school building as a transportation center.

South Bend Community School Corporation

  • Proposed tax rate increase: $0.0663 per $100 assessed value
  • Project total: $54 million
  • To renovate buildings, including adding secure entries, and update an existing building to create a career and technical focused high school for students.

Operational referendums:

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation

  • Proposed tax rate increase: $0.156 per $100 of assessed value
  • Expected total: $9.3 million for eight years
  • To increase pay for teachers and support staff; provide mental health professionals in every school; fund school resource officers; and replace aging school buses.

Benton Community School Corporation

  • Operational referendum
  • Proposed tax rate increase: $0.31 per $100 of assessed value for eight years
  • For retaining teachers and support staff; maintaining class sizes; funding academic, agricultural, vocational, and fine arts programs; and enhancing student safety and security.

Beech Grove City School Corporation

  • Proposed tax rate increase: $0.55 per $100 of assessed value for eight years
  • To replace the 2015 referendum and give $2,000 raises to teachers and $1,000 raises to support staff; and add three school resource officers and three counselors.

Crothersville Community School Corporation

  • Proposed tax rate increase: $0.63 per $100 of assessed value
  • Expected total: $820,000 annually for eight years
  • To fund teacher retention, expansion of academic programs, and support for students with special needs.

Eminence Community School Corporation

  • Proposed tax rate increase: $0.35 per $100 of assessed value for eight years
  • To replace the existing referendum with a new tax rate to fund instructional support, attract and retain teachers, and maintain daily educational operations.

Hanover Community School Corporation

  • Proposed tax rate increase: $0.29 per $100 of assessed value for seven years
  • To renew the 2015 referendum, funding the expansion of academic programs, student safety, transportation, and other educational needs.

Lanesville Community School Corporation

  • Proposed tax rate increase: $0.17 per $100 of assessed value for seven years
  • To renew the 2014 referendum and manage class sizes, retain teachers, and promote school safety.

MSD Washington Township

  • Proposed tax rate increase: $0.25 per $100 of assessed value
  • Expected total: $16 million annually for eight years, totaling $128 million
  • To replace the existing 2016 operational referendum with a new tax rate to fund school safety improvements, additional student support services, expanded academic support programs, and teacher and staff raises.

South Bend Community School Corporation

  • Proposed tax rate increase: $0.3334 per $100 of assessed value
  • Expected total: At least $20.8 million annually for eight years
  • To maintain and expand courses; create new career pathways; increase teacher pay; and offer student support through counselors, college coaches, and social workers in each building.

Union Township School Corporation

  • Proposed tax rate increase: $0.21 per $100 of assessed value for seven years
  • To renew the 2013 operational referendum, which would fund academic programs, manage class sizes, and retain teachers and staff.

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