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'An average of averages': School leaders worry new referendum ballot language will confuse voters

Lauren Chapman
/
IPB News
The new ballot questions include new percentages about school tax revenue, as well as information about a district's previous referendum attempt.

Eight school corporations in Indiana are seeking voter approval for referendum funding this May. But school leaders have concerns about new, lengthier language on voters' ballots.

Lawmakers changed state law in 2021 to require new referendum language on ballots. They now include percentages about a school's average property tax revenue, among other things. That same year, lawmakers also created a requirement for schools to post revenue spending plans so the public can better understand how those dollars would be used.

But referendum expert and retired Purdue University professor Larry DeBoer said the new ballot questions could cause voters to have different interpretations of what a referendum measure means for their tax bill.

"Depending on whether voters read this and understand what they're reading, they may get a much exaggerated view as to how much their taxes might go up," DeBoer said.

The potential for misinterpretation in the ballot booth has school leaders worried – some raised those concerns last fall, when only two school corporations had measures up for consideration.

Valparaiso Community School Corporation Superintendent Jim McCall said most of his time talking about the referendum has been spent preparing voters to encounter the new language.

"My charge is to make sure that our voters are well informed. You know, it's a social contract with our community that we are good stewards for our children and for the investment that they make," he said.

Mt. Vernon Community School Corporation Superintendent Jack Parker has also spent a lot of time educating voters about the ballot question. He and others said they've pointed people to their district's property tax calculators to better understand how much their tax bills will actually change each month.

"They need more dollar figures. They need to know how that dollar rate impacts them – they know what $14 means to them a month," he said.

Parker and others agree that transparency for voters is essential, but he said he hopes lawmakers simplify the language in the future, making it "as simple as possible."

Although the language on ballots is new, many of the funding questions focus on familiar issues like teacher pay, transportation costs and school safety changes. Three schools are proposing referendum measures to support building renovations and other school construction.

Lebanon Community School Corporation is seeking voter approval for both an operations measure and construction referendum. The district plans to use the funds to build a new elementary school, hire more school resource officers and expand STEM programming in elementary schools.

Lebanon Superintendent Jon Milleman said past referendum success has helped increase property values across the community, which means the district would get more revenue without raising its proposed tax rate.

"We can keep the referendum rate flat, and we can do almost three times as much construction as we did in 2010 because there's that much more value in our community," he said.

Most schools seeking referendum approval have proposed measures before. But two school corporations, Edinburgh Community School Corporation and Griffith Public School Corporation, are proposing measures for the first time.

Here's a look at the measures up for consideration and their proposed tax rates:

Operating:
Edinburgh Community School Corporation
Property tax rate:: $0.39 per $100 assessed value

Griffith Public School Corporation
Property tax rate: $0.3294 per $100 assessed value

Lebanon Community School Corporation
Property tax rate: $0.15 per $100 assessed value

Mt. Vernon Community School Corporation
Property tax rate: $0.17 per $100 assessed value

MSD Perry Township School Corporation
Property tax rate: $0.4212 per $100 assessed value

Valparaiso Community School Corporation
Property tax rate: $0.1495 per $100 assessed value

Construction: 
Franklin Township Community School Corporation
Property tax rate: $0.2099 per $100 assessed value
Project total: $98.5 million

Lebanon Community School Corporation
Property tax rate: $0.2855 per $100 assessed value
Project total: $102.7 million

Vigo County School Corporation
Property tax rate: $0.4182 per $100 assessed value
Project total: $261.8 million

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story and the embedded calculator reported Valparaiso Community School Corporation's proposed tax rate as $0.2042 per $100 assessed value. That was incorrect. It is instead $0.1495 per $100 assessed value.

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Copyright 2022 IPB News.

Jeanie Lindsay