Two Indianapolis school districts win extra funding boosts from voters

Voters in two Indianapolis districts approved school funding boosts in Tuesday’s election, a sign of the essential role property tax referendums play in funding Central Indiana schools.

The townships are among 10 school districts statewide that sought funding from voters to supplement the state and local money they already receive. With 96 percent of Marion County vote centers counted at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, the two tax measures easily passed. In Wayne Township, which is one of Indianapolis’ largest school districts, the referendum to increase school funding passed with 63 percent of the vote. In neighboring Decatur Township, 65 percent of voters supported a tax measure.

Across the state, voters also approved referendums for Duneland, Franklin, Frontier, and River Forest schools. But four other referendums failed, with voters turning down tax measures for the Hanover, Elkhart, Plymouth, and DeKalb school districts, according to news reports.

Both Marion County districts were returning to voters who had previously approved referendums. In fact, they were asking for tax increases before prior measures expired.

In Wayne Township, the new tax is expected to generate about $10 million each year for the westside district, which enrolls more than 16,000 students. That’s on top of the money the district is already getting from a referendum that passed four years ago. In total, the district will get about $20 million annually for four years before the first tax measure expires.

Superintendent Jeff Butts, who has led Wayne Township schools for eight years, said the second measure was necessary because of declining state revenue for students in poverty and stagnant property tax income. Butts said it was harder to win voter support this time around, and the district is looking for ways to save in the long term.

“Our community has been clear: We do not have an open checkbook in this township,” Butts said. “While we saw tremendous support with this referendum, we also know that we have to make sure that we are being good fiscal stewards with the taxpayer dollars.”

With the additional funds, Butts hopes the district will be able to increase pay for teachers and support staff and sustain current programs. If the measure hadn’t passed, district leaders had said they would cut about 165 positions and several programs, including preschool and a small high school that allows students to earn college credits.

“In the short term, this means that we’re not cutting programs,” Butt said. “We’re not cutting resources. We’re not cutting opportunities.”

For Wayne Township homeowners, the tax increase will depend on property value. It will raise taxes by up to 35 cents for every $100 of assessed property value. For a home worth $100,000, that will increase taxes by about $115 per year, according to the district calculator.

The situation is slightly different in the Decatur Township school district, which serves just under 7,000 students. Although its referendum also comes on the heels of another tax measure, the tax increases won’t overlap. The new referendum will replace one that was passed in 2014, said Superintendent Matt Prusiecki.

Because Decatur has seen a surge in property values, the original referendum is raising significantly more money than anticipated, Prusiecki said. The replacement tax rate will be slightly lower, but it will continue for longer. It will raise about $5.3 million per year.

Prusiecki said that asking for an extension on the tax measure early was an effort to be prudent and avoid a difficult situation where he had to contemplate cuts.

The money generated by the referendum will pay the district’s electricity bills and building repair costs. It helps cover the district’s transportation costs, and the funding will also go toward a new school safety initiative that includes more investment in counselors, police, mental health services, and community partnerships, Prusiecki said.

It was a relief to win voters’ approval, said Prusiecki, who spent the day at the polls to encourage people to vote for the referendum.

“It’s an endorsement, as far as what we’re doing as a school district and with the community,” he said. “It maintains financial stability so that we can continuing focusing on decisions about what’s best for kids.”

In Decatur Township, the lowered tax will raise up to 29 cents for every $100 of assessed property value. For a home worth $100,000, that amounts to about $95 per year, according to the district calculator.