After losing referendum votes, school corporations face difficult budget decisions
Three Indiana school districts will have to make difficult decisions about their budgets after their referendums were shot down by voters on Tuesday.
Voters rejected school referendums at Fremont Community Schools, School Town of Highland, and Tri-Creek School Corporation in this year’s primary election. Tri-Creek Superintendent Andy Anderson said his school might eventually be forced to cut staff and programs that greatly benefit students.
“This school has served its community well, and we’re at a pivotal moment where we needed the community’s support,” he said.
Referendums are important funding sources for Indiana schools. Since 2008, more than 250 school referenda have been placed on ballots across the state, according to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance. There were 10 referendum requests during this year’s primary.
Schools are allowed to ask for operating referendums if their expenses rise above their available funding. If voters approve a referendum, their taxes will increase by a predetermined amount based on property values. Referendums typically last eight years, but they can be extended.
Highland Superintendent Brian Smith said this is the first time Highland has ever asked voters for a referendum. He added that the school corporation would not ask if it were not necessary.
“Unfortunately, it’s a significant amount of dollars that we have to cut,” he said. “That’s why we asked for the referendum. We’ve never asked before, where a lot of other districts have asked three, four times. We waited as long as we could.”
If it had passed, the annual revenue from Highland’s referendum would have generated about $4.8 million.
Smith and Anderson both said voters have approved surrounding schools’ referendums in recent years. Now, they’re concerned those schools will draw their teachers away with promises of better pay.
“Their salaries are much higher, and they’ll be able to poach a lot of our good teachers and bus drivers and food service workers and aids and custodians and so forth,” Smith said.
READ MORE: These Indiana schools won a property-tax referendum in the May primary
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Anderson said Tri-Creek is already seeing that reality and said the positions are not easy to fill. One high school chemistry position at Tri-Creek was never filled, and six classes had to be divided and added into other classrooms. That ballooned class sizes for the remaining teachers.
“You can't attract quality people to your school and as a result, the quality of your education goes down,” Anderson said.
Anderson added that teachers and administrators feel defeated and said it is a struggle to keep his staff motivated to go to work each day. The school must find additional funding or cut about $1 million from the budget for the 2024-2025 school year, but he doubts that asking for another referendum will yield different results.
“Two-thirds of our community were not in favor of it,” he said. “When you’ve got two-thirds of your community not supporting your local school, that’s a problem.”
Smith said the school district will likely have to hold another referendum in the future to stay competitive with surrounding schools. Since this year’s referendum lost by a narrow margin, he is hopeful that the next one will pass.
For now, Highland will cut costs, look for alternative revenue streams, and possibly open their classrooms to students outside their school district.
“It was really, really close,” Smith said. “It just didn’t go our way this time. It’s unfortunate for the kids and the community. I’ve always believed kids are our biggest investment, and I thought of it as an investment in the children. It’s disheartening when they don’t pass those, but it is what it is.”
Kirsten is our education reporter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @kirsten_adair.