News From Terre Haute, Indiana

News Columns

November 18, 2013

Citizens fight for school funds

Goshen parents make case for tax levies — and win

INDIANAPOLIS — Never underestimate the power of high school band parents.

That’s one lesson coming out of the special elections this month, when voters in four Indiana communities were asked to raise property taxes to provide more funding for their local schools.

Three of those referenda went down to defeat. The fourth sailed through with no organized opposition.

Michigan City voters said no to a $5 million request to close a budget gap in their schools’ general fund; Mishawaka voters said no to a $28 million request to repair their aging schools, and Muncie voters said no to a $3 million request to keep the schools buses running.

Meanwhile, voters in Goshen — a city of 32,000 people of relatively modest means — said yes to a request for $17 million for a new school pool, bigger band rooms, a new baseball field, and a remodeled cafeteria to accommodate an increasing middle-school student population.

How did that happen?

Here’s where those band parents come in: In Goshen, they were part of a broad coalition of school boosters who convinced voters that paying more taxes would be a wise investment in their community’s future.

Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman was part of that coalition. Earlier this week, contemplating the referendum vote, the three-term mayor credited a well-organized effort to gain voters’ trust.

“You can’t just presume these things are going to happen,” Kauffman said.

Other school districts have learned that the hard way in the five years since the Indiana General Assembly capped property taxes and changed the way school districts can levy taxes for construction and operating expenses. Of the 88 school referenda since 2008, just slightly half have passed. Those asking for money for building costs — like Goshen’s referendum — fared worse than those that asked for operating expenses.

Ball State University economist Michael Hicks cited several reasons for the failed referenda. Among them: Skeptical voters who didn’t believe local school leaders were capable of making tough decisions about spending priorities.

Hicks also makes this argument: After 1973, when the father of property tax relief, the late Gov. Otis Bowen, made it so much harder for local government units to raise tax levies, most local leaders gave up. They stopped pitching the idea of more revenue as an investment worth making in the community.

“The experience with an informational campaign is lacking in local government,” Hicks said.

Goshen is an exception. While Kauffman helped champion the tax increase for his community’s schools, he credits recently retired Goshen superintendent Bruce Stahly for helping create trust with voters.

In 2010, as Goshen schools were feeling the crush of capped property taxes and a cut in school funding from the state, Stahly created a citizens task force that spent months studying the school district’s finances. The task force’s recommendations were supported by Stahly and adopted by the school board. (Kauffman followed the model to create a citizens’ task force that looked at city finances.)

Stahly also earned the trust of parents: As the Goshen schools absorbed an increasing number of poor and immigrant students, the Goshen schools were also winning state and national accolades, including those for their arts and music programs.

Senior citizens are notorious for voting against school referenda. But among supporters of the Goshen referendum were residents of a large retirement community, who had been promised access to the new school pool by Goshen’s new superintendent, the well-liked Diane Woodworth.

Stahly and Kauffman are no fans of the tax caps that have caused communities to lose millions in revenue. But other local leaders may learn from their response.

“It was easy to get money for a long period of time,” Kauffman said. “Whatever you didn’t have money for, you just raised property taxes to do it. So in a way, we have to become better sales people.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen. hayden@indianamedia group.com.

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