Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick noted in her visit to Lowell High School last week that referendums are becoming a staple funding mechanism that school districts across the state likely will need to consider.
She's right. Districts that succeed in giving students the instruction they need will require the extra operating revenue these referendums generate.
A state law passed in 2008 allows school districts to ask voters to approve tax increases for operating expenses or construction projects. Some districts, like Valparaiso Community Schools, have asked for both at the same time.
"If the school district is not getting enough money through the state's basic tuition support to give teachers the raises they deserve to keep programs alive, that's the trigger to say we need more money," McCormick said.
It's a request that must not be taken lightly. Ask too much, and the voters will reject it as unaffordable.
Generally speaking, school referendums are a good investment for taxpayers. The quality of local schools is an important factor in determining property values. A successful referendum shows a community is committed to quality schools, a good sign for potential home buyers.
"We're in it for the long haul with referendums," McCormick said. "We're going to see more and more of them. You won't hear a superintendent saying they'll never do it. There's so much volatility out there with the student enrollment, property tax caps, programming, graduation pathways and diploma requirements that it's become an option to generate money."
School supporters promoting a referendum must sell voters a solid plan for the use of the extra property tax revenue, and then school officials must deliver on those promises.
Any district using this tool should offer voters not only solid reasons why the existing revenue isn't enough but always how the new money would be used.
School officials should offer a solid set of metrics by which the district's use of that money should be measured, and then report on the progress throughout the lifetime of that extra revenue.
This is an important tool for school districts, but it should be used properly. School officials must make wise, measurable and transparent choices with the money gleaned from referendums if they want to make a case for extending the taxpayer funding in future votes.