5 things to know about school referendums in Indiana

School districts in Indiana are increasingly appealing directly to residents for more money for everything from teachers salaries to new school buildings.

With schools largely reliant on state money for operating expenses, and with local dollars capped and primarily covering transportation and facilities, more than 115 of the state’s nearly 300 districts have put education referendums on the ballot in the past decade.

2019 Referendums: See which districts are putting referendums on the ballot and how much they are asking for.

With 10 Indiana school districts asking voters to approve a tax increase on Election Day next month, here’s what you should know about Indiana education referendums, where they are passing, and how they impact local districts:

1. Districts in the state’s poorest and wealthiest areas are most likely to attempt a referendum.

A new report by the Legislative Services Agency found that districts in wealthy areas — with per capita incomes in the top 20% of the state — have attempted and passed the most referendums. While districts in poor areas — with per capita income in the bottom 20% — have attempted and passed the second largest amount of referendums in the state, nearly double the number that have been passed in areas that fall into the middle income brackets.

Districts in wealthy areas often rely on referendums to offset their lower state funding under a formula that provides additional dollars to districts per student considered to be living in poverty. By contrast, districts in low-income areas typically run referendums to make up for lost money as its enrollment declines and property taxes are capped.

2. Only one type of school referendum can be used to increase teacher pay.

There are three types of referendums available to schools in Indiana. One for construction projects, one for safety features and one for day-to-day operational costs. Only operational referendums, which last for up to eight years, can be used to increase teachers’ salaries.

But operational referendums don’t have to be used for that pay. In fact, the state has recently seen a growing number of districts using operational referendums to address school shooting concerns — adding security measures and mental health supports.

3. Teachers in districts that passed a referendum see larger salary increases.

Since 2014, teachers in districts that passed a referendum specifically to attract or retain teachers saw larger salary increases than teachers at districts that didn’t attempt a referendum, according to the LSA report. Teachers in those districts also started with a higher average salary before the referendum.

Two years after their districts passed the referendum, teachers saw their combined average salary increase by 3.7%, jumping to $53,563, from $51,441. Teachers in districts without a referendum comparatively saw their combined average salary increase by 1.8% during the same two years, rising to $50,059.

4. A school referendum has been attempted in less than half of the state’s counties.

While the number of districts attempting referendums has continued to grow, voters in more than half of the counties in the state have never seen one on the ballot. At least one referendum has been attempted by a district in 37 of Indiana’s 92 counties, according to the Department of Local Government Finance.

5. Marion County has attempted the most referendums, and seen the highest success rate.

School districts in Marion County have both attempted and passed the most referendums in the state. Twelve of the 14 such ballot measures attempted since 2009 were successful. The county has 11 school districts, including the state’s largest, Indianapolis Public Schools, which passed a $222 million operational and $52 million construction referendum last year.

In November, Lawrence Township will be the only district from Marion County with such an education measure on the ballot. The district is seeking a construction referendum worth $191 million to expand and renovate school buildings.