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Referendums could fund more teachers and new buildings. Why school leaders worry voters will say no

A sign reads, “Vote here, vote aqui.”

Voters in eight Indiana school districts will see a referendum question on their ballot this November.

Bloomberg Creative / Getty Images

This article was co-published by Chalkbeat Indiana and WFYI as part of a collaboration ahead of the 2022 school board elections. 

Eight school districts across Indiana are asking voters to approve an increase to their property taxes or continue a referendum tax levy.

Most of the funding requests would go to paying teachers and other staff, according to the  spending plans filed by each school corporation. Without approval for these new levies, suburban and rural districts alike say they will be forced to cut staff and likely see an increase in the number of students in a classroom.

“If the community votes no to supporting our schools, we will be forced to significantly reduce programing and services across our academics, the arts and athletics,” said Brown County Schools Superintendent Emily Tracy in a public message about the $15.1 million operating referendum on the November ballot for the district that serves 1,569 students. “We will be forced to freeze salaries and wages for our staff and cut positions across the entire district.”

School districts are also voicing concern that voters may misunderstand the public question on the ballot of whether to approve a property tax referendum. Last year, a law was enacted that requires the ballot question include the estimated average percentage of property tax increase paid to the school district if the levy is approved.

For the Metropolitan School District of Wabash County, the estimated average percentage increase is listed as 124.5% on the public question. School leaders worry voters will take that estimated amount for the much lower increase to their own property tax.

“The referendum question on the November 8th ballot is misleading!” reads material from Wabash County schools. 

The district is seeking a $115 million capital referendum to fund a new high school that could serve up to 600 students, among other facility renovations. If approved, homeowners will see their property tax rate increase by 61.44% — that’s a rate of $0.83 raising to $1.34 per $100 of assessed value.

Westfield-Washington Schools described its $61 million referendum question in Hamilton County as “very misleading” because the tax rate of the current levy would be reduced by $0.03.

Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, agrees with the districts.

“We do believe the language is confusing and certainly misleading to taxpayers,” he said, noting that most voters would be paying far less in new taxes on an approved levy than the amount of the estimated average increase listed on the ballot question.

“We think there’s better language, more appropriate or suitable language that could be put on the ballot,” he said.

Spradlin said his association and others will push for a change to the law in the legislative session next year. He’d rather the question include a precise dollar amount of a proposed property-tax increase based on the median home value in the school district community. 

Indiana’s property taxes are capped at assessed value rates based on the type of property: 1% for owner-occupied homes, 2% for other residential properties and farmland, and 3% for all other property. But if voters approve a local referendum, a property tax bill can exceed the cap and the extra taxes go to the local school district.

School referendums on November 2022 ballots

Here’s the local public question for school referendums on November ballots. The totals for operation levies are based on the net assessed valuation of taxable property in the district boundary earlier this year. That value can change.

Construction

MSD of Wabash County, Wabash County  

Property tax rate: $0.8300 cents per $100 of assessed valuation for eight years

Project total: $115,000,000

For: Build a new 165,000-square-foot high school at a cost of more than $72 million for students in grades 9-12 to open for the 2027-28 academic year. Major renovations at Northfield Jr./Sr. High School and Southwood Jr./Sr. High School to become buildings for preschool to grade 8 students. Find out more at the district website here.

Operating

Brown County Schools, Brown County

Property tax rate: $0.1200 per $100 assessed value for eight years

Project total: $15,140,096

For: An operating referendum approved in 2016 is coming to an end. This new levy would increase the current tax rate by $0.04 per $100 of assessed property value. The majority of the new funds will go to teacher and staff salaries. Without it, the district says it will be forced to cut $1.2 million from the annual budget, lay off some staff and freeze wages. Find out more at the district website here.

Delphi Community School Corporation, Carroll County

Property tax rate: $0.2032 per $100 assessed value for eight years

Project total: $9,598,120

For: Funding daily educational operations, academic and support programs ($4 million), attracting and retaining teachers ($2.4 million), and managing class sizes ($1.6 million) and other expenses. Find out more at the state website here

Medora Community School Corporation, Jackson County

Property tax rate: $0.50 per $100 assessed value for eight years

Project total: $1,554,000

For: Transportation of students ($652,400), attracting and retaining of certified teachers and classified staff ($1 million), and other academic needs. Find out more at the state website here.

Monroe County Community School Corporation, Monroe County

Property tax rate: $0.1850 per $100 assessed value for eight years

Project total: MCCSC did not respond with the annual amount that would be generated by the referendum by deadline.

For: Nearly all the funds will go toward teacher and staff pay. If approved, teachers will get salary increases of $4,500 and support staff wages will increase by $2.25 per hour. Find out more at the district website here.

MSD of Southwest Allen County, Allen County

Property tax rate: $0.15 per $100 assessed value for eight years

Project total: $51,245,496

For: A renewal of a referendum approved first in 2009 and renewed in 2016. The levy would fund district staff, including dozens of current teachers, guidance counselors and a school resource officer ($33.1 million). It would also fund approximately 14 new classroom teachers ($9.1 million), two security personnel and seven guidance counselors/social workers ($6.1 million), among other academic needs. Find out more at the district website here.

Southern Wells Community Schools, Wells County

Property tax rate: $0.127 per $100 assessed value for eight years

Project total: $4,241,584

For: A renewal of a referendum approved first in 2016. It would fund the current salaries of six teachers, two instructional assistants and a custodian, plus cover the expenses for career and technical education classes at the high school. Find out more at the district website here.

Westfield Washington Schools, Hamilton County   

Property tax rate: $0.17 per $100 assessed value for eight years

Project total: $61,038,144.00

For: A renewal of a referendum approved first in 2016 but at a rate reduced by $0.03. It would fund retaining and attracting teachers and staff ($40 million); managing class sizes ($16 million), and funding academic and educationally related programs at current levels ($5 million). Find out more at the district website here.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly included that Fremont Community Schools would have a referendum on the November ballot. The district missed a deadline for a referendum question to appear on the 2022 ballot. The district intends for the referendum question to appear on the spring 2023 ballot. The article has been updated to reflect which districts do have a referendum in 2022, changing the total to eight districts.

Contact WFYI education editor Eric Weddle at eweddle@wfyi.org or call (317) 614-0470. Follow on Twitter: @ericweddle.

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