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FAIR ballots for better schools

A Sunday story I wrote about Indiana's school finance environment examined how changes in state law have made it increasingly difficult for school districts to win approval for construction projects. I didn't learn until after the story was published that an organization has been formed to address that very situation.

FAIR (Fostering Accuracy, Involvement & Responsibility Inc.) is a statewide group "created to bring greater fairness to Indiana's public facility construction process."

The organization is headed by former Plainfield Superintendent Jerry Holifield and includes members from the education, architecture and construction fields, among others.

"We believe that a referendum can provide a legitimate choice only when local voters receive accurate information from both sides," according to FAIR's web site, which notes that the organization is working to "help state legislators recognize the need for refinement of the laws."

Michele Thomas, a school board member for Lebanon Community School Corp., lays out the organization's issue clearly in an article on the FAIR web site:

In Lebanon, all of the referendum debt will be offset by paying down other debt, resulting in a steady debt service tax rate over the life of the bonds. Nonetheless, the DLGF wrote our Nov. 2010 ballot question asking voters to approve a $.66 cent increase to their property tax rate (reflecting the maximum tax impact). We had no appeal or recourse for this—we just had to work that much harder to educate voters that the question was misleading, and that while they would be paying the same tax rate for a longer time, they would not see an increase to their tax rate as a result of the referendum.

This is a structural problem that needs addressing, but for now it puts schools at a terrible disadvantage. Most voters, when faced with a question asking them to increase their taxes (and according to the DLGF every referendum does this), will default to a "NO" vote.

The Lebanon referendum, to approve $40 million in renovation work, passed by just 35 votes out of 5,500 cast. The measure had no organized opposition.

The Fort Wayne Community Schools board, weighing a proposed $242 million renovation project, is already addressing the need to overcome the state's onerous ballot-language requirements. As currently structured, the proposed project would add just 10.5 cents to the current 19-cent debt service rate – one of the lowest rates among all Indiana school districts. But the ballot language DLGF is requiring will force the district to present the question to voters in the same misleading fashion as was done in Lebanon.

Suburban districts, where a larger proportion of the voters are likely to have children in the schools, are much more likely to be successful in passing a referendum than an urban or rural district, where voters mostly unfamiliar with the schools will be inclined to vote no when asked if they want to pay more in taxes. The state has stacked the deck against urban and rural schools, but the long-term effects of the policy will eventually harm all Indiana schools – long after the politicians and bureaucrats responsible have moved on.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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