Pharos-Tribune

Columns

December 2, 2013

HAYDEN: How to get a referenda passed

Never underestimate the power of high school band parents.

That’s one lesson coming out of the special elections this month, when voters in four Indiana communities were asked to raise property taxes to provide more funding for their local schools.

Three of those referenda went down to defeat. The fourth sailed through with no organized opposition.

Michigan City voters said no to a $5 million request to close a budget gap in their schools’ general fund; Mishawaka voters said no to a $28 million request to repair their aging schools, and Muncie voters said no to a $3 million request to keep the schools busses running.

Meanwhile, voters in Goshen – a city of 32,000 people of relatively modest means — said yes to a request for $17 million for a new school pool, bigger band rooms, a new baseball field, and a remodeled cafeteria to accommodate an increasing middle-school student population.

How did that happen?

Here’s where those band parents come in: In Goshen, they were part of a broad coalition of school boosters who convinced voters that paying more taxes would be a wise investment in their community’s future.

Goshen Mayor Allen Kaufmann was part of that coalition. Earlier this week, contemplating the referendum vote, the three-term mayor credited a well-organized effort to gain voters’ trust.

“You can’t just presume these things are going to happen,” said Kauffman.

Other school districts have learned that the hard way in the five years since the Indiana General Assembly capped property taxes and changed the way school districts can levy taxes for construction and operating expenses. Of the 88 school referenda since 2008, just slightly half have passed. Those asking for money for building costs – like Goshen’s referendum – fared worse than those that asked for operating expenses.

Ball State University economist Michael Hicks cited several reasons for the failed referenda. Among them: Skeptical voters who didn’t believe local school leaders were capable of making tough decisions about spending priorities.

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