Three referenda on May ballots see success . . . but one fails

Four school districts in the state included referenda on ballots during the May 7 primary election. Three out of four requests passed – including one in Marion County that will be the first that must share its proceeds with charter schools – marking a 75% success rate.

Among the short list of measures on ballots this May, we’ll particularly be keeping an eye on MSD Pike Township following its referendum passage. Why? Pike Township’s successful operating referendum marks a significant milestone for a law passed last year (SEA 391-2023) requiring public schools in Marion County and three other counties to share referenda dollars with interested charter schools within the school district’s boundaries. Pike Township will be the first to see how this law plays out, and how much charters will benefit from it. (and, depending on how you look at it, how much public schools could be losing out).

The levy expected to bring in $14.5 million annually passed by high margins in Pike Township, with 58.8% voting for the measure. Much of the narrative surrounding why Pike needs these funds is to keep programs running currently funded by soon-to-expire federal pandemic ESSER dollars. Many schools are finding themselves in this situation with the money running out . . . so you may see more referenda on ballots in coming elections for the same reasons.

The budget for the Pike referendum breaks down to: $4.5 million to sustain pandemic programs, which includes salaries for about 57 staff (teachers, academic interventionists, and social workers), and replacing technology; $9 million for staff retention, supporting some wages for instructional staff, including teachers, therapists, custodians, secretaries, and administrators; and another $1 million directed toward school safety and security to extend salaries and benefits for security staff and purchase new safety equipment.

As for the charter schools, 15 schools have indicated they intend to share referenda funds with Pike Township. Based on Pike’s spending plans the school district estimates, about $412,000 could be distributed annually between the charters eligible.

Notably, Pike didn’t coordinate campaigning with any of the charters . . . although we remember SEA 391 author Sen. Linda Rogers (R) of Granger telling us earlier this year that one of the positives of referendum-sharing will be that charters should help in campaigning to get the referendum passed.

Funding distributions for each charter should break down as follows, based on Pike’s spending plan:

–  BELIEVE Circle City High School: $13,693

–  Christel House Academy West: $7,607

–  Enlace Academy: $31,950

–  Herron Charter: $71,507

–  Herron Preparatory Academy: $30,428

–  Herron-Riverside High School: $59,335

–  IN Math & Science Academy: $82,157

–  IN Math & Science Academy – North: $33,471

–  Matchbook Learning: $6,086

–  Paramount Brookside: $10,650

–  Paramount Cottage Home: $9,129

–  Paramount Englewood: $6,086

–  Purdue Polytechnic High School North: $24,343

–  Purdue Polytechnic High School: $10,650

–  Vision Academy: $15,214

However, some questions still remain from the district on whether all 15 charters will be eligible to share the wealth. In an interview with WFYI in Indianapolis, Pike Township Superintendent Larry Young reveals that he’s not sure if all of the schools qualify. “There are some things that the schools have to do and so that’s something that we are monitoring,” Dr. Young tells WFYI.

The question of eligibility is tricky because lawmakers apparently didn’t designate a state agency to determine which charters qualify and which don’t.

They did set some requirements that have to be met in order to share, such as posting disclosure statements that include that they are not committing any crimes, and providing data on staff compensation and student enrollment. An enforcement element for those requirements is missing.

Though the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance oversees local property tax referenda, DLGF contends that it is not the agency designated to enforce charter referenda-sharing.

Charter proponents are preparing for a potential fight over sharing the money, amid Superintendent Young’s questions about the eligibility of all 15 schools. Each school has indicated it will work to ensure their eligibility to get the referendum money.

Marcie Brown-Carter, executive director of Indiana Charter School Network, also contends to WFYI that this isn’t Dr. Young’s decision to make. “The superintendent of Pike is not the arbiter of who is following the law or not,” she asserts.

We expect to see more details (and maybe oversights) unfold about how this sharing will work in Pike Township . . . and we may see lawmakers return to correct the law, again (they already were forced to add more clarity on the intent of SEA 391 during the 2024 session), if in fact there is an issue with enforcing which charters can and cannot be eligible.

The Unsuccessful Ask

Not every district enjoyed success with their respective referenda this May. Voters overwhelmingly defeated Blue River Valley School Corporation’s operating referenda, with 83% voting against the levy.

This was the first time Blue River Valley had ever requested voters to approve a referendum. The extra money (about $360,000 annually, an amount many other districts might consider to be loose change) was to be used to increase teacher pay throughout the district. The district’s starting salary is $40,000, the lowest starting salary among area schools in Henry County.

At the same time, the DLGF shows that Blue River Valley currently has the highest certified tax rate among school districts that serve Henry County families.

The small district hosted public forums, where officials shared with voters that the school had been losing money due to property tax caps. According to Superintendent Trent McCormick (who is the husband of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jennifer McCormick), this district lost more than $400,000 from its operating fund in 2023.

Still, opponents of the referendum argued that new tax revenue was not guaranteed to go to teacher salaries, and questioned how current operating funds were being spent, the New Castle Courier Times reports.

Successful Requests

Beyond MSD Pike Township, other successes came for Fremont Community Schools and Brown County School Corporation.

Brown County Schools will get $1.87 million annually from its referendum to cover teacher and staff pay and benefits. Nearly 55% of voters approved an increase and renewal for a property tax rate previously passed in 2016. The district faced a defeat in 2022 when it sought a similar referendum. The school in campaign efforts ran a series of letters to voters in the Brown County Democrat since late last year to share why the funds were needed by the district.

The operating referendum for Fremont Community Schools in Steuben County passed with almost 52% of the vote. The renewal of a 2015 levy will generate $2.3 million annually. Most of the funds will cover teacher and staff pay.

This is the second attempt from Fremont to renew its 2015 levy.

You may recall that the district first attempted and failed last May to earn the renewal. This renewal attempt saw some pushback through a campaign titled “STOP FCS INDIANA TAX GRAB” in which opponents were concerned the school was not being truthful about how it would spend the money and described the money as going into a “slush fund.”

In a letter to the editor published by the Angola Herald Republican, Dan Thiele, a local Republican precinct committeeman, also accused the Fremont schools district of taking advantage of the May primary as a way to get the referendum passed because fewer people vote in primaries. As we’ve told you before, May referenda tend to do better than those attempted in the fall . . . which could be in part due to the fact that fewer people generally vote in primary elections.

Now, onto the numbers.

This year’s May referenda on ballots boast a 75% passing rate, which is better than 2023’s success rate of 61.54% (eight out of 13 passed) in a municipal-only election year. Different from last year though is the fact that only operating referenda were on ballots this May. Operating measures tend to fare better than construction or safety referenda. May 2023 operating referenda saw a 70% passing rate. In total with 2024 numbers, 80 out of 101 spring operating referenda have passed since 2010, a 79% success rate.

The highest success rate distinction for primary ballot referenda is still held by June 2020’s incredible 88.9% success rate, when 16 of 18 referenda passed.

A 75% rate also tops last November’s 58.3% passing rate, when seven out of 12 measures passed. As we’ve said, spring referenda typically enjoy greater success.

Totaling up, by our math, 176 of 275 (64%) of referenda have passed since November 2008, placing this spring’s pass rate (75%) safely ahead of the overall count . . .  but note that the ballot measures got off to a slow start with only 27 of the first 67 (40.3%) referenda questions approved.

For just May referenda, 110 of 144 have passed since 2010, marking a 76% success rate. For comparison purposes, 56% of November referenda have passed since 2008.

Here’s your complete breakdown of 2024 spring school referenda results:

Blue River Valley Schools: Henry County

Type: Operating

Rate: $0.19 per $100 of assessed property value for eight years

Annual revenue: $359,594

Spending plan: Teacher pay.

Result: FAILED

Brown County School Corporation: Brown County

Type: Operating

Rate: $0.10 per $100 of assessed property value for eight years

Annual revenue: $1.9 million

Spending plan: Salaries, benefits, and programs in arts, work-based learning, and career technical education.

Result: PASSED

Fremont Community Schools: Steuben County

Type: Operating

Rate: $0.15 per $100 of assessed property value for eight years

Annual revenue: $2.4 million

Spending plan: Retaining and attracting teachers and academic programming.

Result: PASSED

MSD of Pike Township: Marion County

Type: Operating

Rate: $0.24 per $100 of assessed property value for eight years

Annual revenue: $14.5 million

Spending plan: Continuing programs and staffing added since the pandemic, attracting and retaining teachers, and school safety and security.

Result: PASSED

Looking ahead to November, we’ve heard the School City of Hammond hasn’t ruled out trying again to renew its operating referendum after it failed overwhelmingly in November 2023. However, school officials have said the revenue from that likely won’t be enough to fully offset the expected deficit of more than $27 million. As you know, as a result of the failure to renew its referendum, the urban school district is course-correcting by cutting jobs and transportation services and closing three schools.

We also have school board races to look forward to in November. This is also the first year in which candidate filing is opening earlier than in the past, with the period set to open May 21, instead of at the end of July in past years.

Of course, 2022 saw some school board races become quite heated over issues like DEI, critical race theory, library books, and pandemic-related school protocols such as wearing masks and remote learning. We’ve discerned that a lot of that controversy seems to have died down over the last two years, so you may be able to look forward to a calmer school board election season this time. Or not.