Back on Election Day, May 6, nine out of 10 Indiana school referenda passed. Eight were tax referenda, where voters approved new taxes for school operating costs. Two were for capital projects, to raise money to renovate school buildings. One of those passed, and one failed.
Indiana has required referenda to approve big capital projects since November 2008. That was one of the changes enacted with the big property tax reform that year. Since then, school corporations have proposed 48 capital referenda, and voters have approved 21, which is 44 percent.
What makes school corporations propose capital referenda? Perhaps schools compare the facilities they need to the facilities they have. If reality falls too far short of need, voters are asked to approve new construction.
Enrollment growth probably creates need. More kids need more classrooms. If a school corporation outgrows its existing buildings, new construction might be necessary. Sure enough, about two-thirds of the capital referenda have been proposed by growing school corporations.
Ability to pay probably counts, too. Places with higher incomes can better afford to buy new facilities. Again, sure enough, about two-thirds of the capital referenda have been proposed in counties in the top half of per capita income.
Only seven of 48 capital referenda have been proposed by school corporations with falling enrollment in lower-income counties. All seven were defeated. This means, though, that there are about 150 school corporations with enrollment growth or higher income that have not proposed capital referenda. It seems like the number of capital projects referenda is pretty small.
Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin make their school referenda data easily available, so let’s compare Indiana’s proposals and results to those states. From November 2008-November 2013, Illinois school districts proposed 98 capital referenda, and passed 49 (that’s 50 percent). Illinois has twice as many pupils as Indiana, and twice the number of referenda. Not much difference there.