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
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
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
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
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
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
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 and 50
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
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.