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Last modified: Tuesday, June 29, 2010

May school referenda in Indiana hold lessons for vote in fall

New CEEP policy brief suggests school corporations must campaign well to succeed

June 29, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- As a number of Indiana school corporations consider or have already set referenda for the Nov. 2 election, a new report from Indiana University's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) suggests a lot of work is needed to get voters' approval. School Referenda in Indiana is the latest education policy brief from CEEP and, the authors say, a start at researching Indiana's brief history of using the school referendum process.

The Indiana General Assembly passed Public Law 146 in 2008, establishing referenda for school construction and general fund property-tax levies as a new mechanism of school funding. Voter referenda replaced Indiana's petition-and-remonstrance process for most school construction projects. While the petition-and-remonstrance process allowed voters only the power to stop funding after a school corporation determined to start a project, referenda require voters to approve a school corporation request for additional money. In addition, general-fund referenda are required for any school corporation seeking to raise property taxes beyond established tax caps.


Since then, the economy has struggled and forced Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels to cut K-12 education funding by $300 million last year with future cuts possible. As a result, there have been 42 referenda votes since the law passed.

"I don't think the legislators ever imagined when they passed that law in 2008 that within six to nine months we'd have the biggest recession in decades," said Terry Spradlin, associate director of education policy at CEEP and the report's co-author. "That certainly has had an unintended consequence on all public programs including K-12 education."

Many Indiana school corporations are discussing placing referenda on the ballot in November or have already decided to do so. Among the school corporations that are going to the voters are Whitko, Zionsville, Westfield Washington and Center Grove, along with Monroe County Community School Corp. in Bloomington.

Spradlin said the change in the law combined with the funding cuts has slightly changed the nature of school administrators' jobs.

"Our superintendents are really going to have to become campaign savvy," Spradlin said. "They have to become familiar with the nuances of campaigning and managing a campaign and they have to become very familiar with the differences in the law pertaining to construction referenda and general fund referenda." Under the law, for example, school corporations can actively campaign for general fund referenda, but not for construction referenda.

For the report, Spradlin and CEEP research assistant Stephen Hiller spoke with superintendents of the 14 school corporations that had referenda on the ballot on May 4. There were 16 referenda (two school corporations had two referenda), with half winning voter approval. Superintendents said communicating the need for the funding was vital.

"One of the superintendents actually noted in his response to me that there was a great sense in his community that the school corporation was seeking 'wants' versus 'needs' and that's why their particular referendum failed in that community," Spradlin said. The school corporation leaders said they had to make clear in any request for more money that they were only asking for what is absolutely necessary.

Since 2008, voters have approved just 42 percent of all school funding referenda -- for both general funds and construction. Spradlin and Hiller write that much more study needs to be done to understand other potential influencing factors on voters, such as the existing tax rates in the communities where referenda are held and school performance.

Potentially confounding to school corporations lobbying for more funding this fall is the presence of Public Question 1 on the statewide ballot, a measure that would add a cap on property taxes to the state constitution.

"Some voters will be asked to vote on capping property tax permanently while at the same time being asked locally by their school corporation to increase property taxes outside of these caps," Spradlin said.

To help understand Indiana's short history of school funding referenda, CEEP has established an online database ( tracking the votes since 2008, a database that will be continuously updated with each election cycle. Details include the school corporation seeking funding, what type of referendum, the amount sought, the tax rate increase asked for, as well as the percentage of votes for and against each of the referenda.

The authors say they hope the report and database are the start to more research into what factors influence school funding referenda.

"There's been plenty of research and literature on other states' passage rates and factors that are influencing them," Hiller said. "This is really the first report that has sought to look at school referenda as they're occurring in Indiana. Hopefully it will be an excellent starting point for us or any other researcher to jump off and examine other factors."

The full report on school referenda is available on the CEEP website.

CEEP, one of the country's leading non-partisan education policy and evaluation centers, promotes and supports rigorous evaluation and research primarily, but not exclusively, for educational, human services and nonprofit organizations. Center projects address state, national and international education questions. CEEP is part of the IU School of Education. To learn more about CEEP, go to