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Districts struggle to educate voters about murky referendum language on ballots

A school bus from the Metropolitan School District of Pike Township is parked in front of a sign urging voters to vote "yes" on the school's referendum.
Lauren Chapman
IPB News
Superintendents say schools face challenges passing referendums because of unclear language that makes tax increases look larger than they actually are.

Indiana superintendents say schools face an uphill battle to pass referendums. Two superintendents of schools that had referendums this year said it’s difficult to educate voters about how referendums will affect their property taxes.

Blue River Valley Schools lost its referendum vote.

Trent McCormick, the district’s superintendent, said the way referendums are worded on ballots under state law misleads voters into thinking they’ll be required to pay significantly more on their taxes.

“The question is convoluted, long, and quite honestly, it's designed to scare the taxpayers,” he said. “It's disingenuous.”

McCormick said one voter he talked to thought his property taxes would increase by $700 a year when he first read the question. When he did the math, the referendum would have raised the man’s taxes less than $200.

McCormick said the corporation will hold meetings and make tough decisions to decide how to cut costs. He’s not yet sure how staffing, services and programming will be affected.

“At the end of the day, we have to plan to be financially responsible and solvent for the future for our district,” he said.

Fremont Community Schools passed its referendum this year. Last year was a different story.

Fremont Community Schools Superintendent Bill Stitt said, this year, the district reduced the amount it asked for and worked overtime to educate the community.

School employees sent out postcards, hung fliers and canvassed local neighborhoods to better educate voters. The district even had coaches post information about the referendum to their social media accounts.

“We stood out at the polling station last Tuesday,” Stitt said. “Even in the rain, we were out there.”

If the referendum failed this year, Fremont would have had to consider cutting elementary and middle school Spanish, special education teachers and a school social worker along with other positions and programs.

Stitt talked to voters last year after Fremont’s referendum failed. He heard some community members were surprised and upset the referendum did not pass.

“What we heard from a year ago was, ‘I just thought it was going to pass, so I didn't even vote,’” he said.

Stitt agreed that the referendum question on ballots is misleading to voters. He said the way the question is worded is confusing and makes voters more likely to vote “no” because the increases to their property taxes look more severe than they will be.

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He added that the confusion hurts schools because many districts depend on referendums to make up for gaps in state funding.

“I would love to say we will never have to ask for a referendum again," he said. "I don't know if that'll happen."

Voters in Brown County School Corporation and the MSD of Pike Township also approved referendums this year.

Kirsten is our education reporter. Contact her at or follow her on Twitter at @kirsten_adair.

Kirsten the Indiana Public Broadcasting education reporter. Contact her at or follow her on Twitter at @kirsten_adair.