By Ann Marie Shambaugh
If history is an indication, the Carmel Clay Schools replacement referendum will be approved by voters May 2.
Only once have voters rejected a referendum after previously approving one. Combine that with the absence of any formalized opposition to the referendum and several other factors, and it would seem a clear victory for those supporting it.
But officials from CCS and the Carmel Schools Yes! political action committee aren’t taking anything for granted. Supt. Dr. Nicholas Wahl and other administrators have been holding community meetings about the referendum since before spring break, first with school employees, then with the general public.
“We are going to work very diligently up until May 2 to make everyone aware and informed on what the replacement referendum means to us,” Wahl said.
District officials have been consistent on what they say will happen without a replacement of the 2010 referendum:
- The loss of 260 CCS employees, including 141 teachers.
- Class sizes will balloon, with one class per grade level disappearing.
- Many programs, such as electives and extracurricular activities, would be cut.
Voters are asked to approve a 3 cent increase in the referendum rate, bumping it from 16 to 19 cents. But with an equal expected reduction in the debt service rate, the total school tax rate is expected to remain flat at 83 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
CCS receives $786 less per pupil from the state compared to the average school district, which receives $6,006 per pupil, with only Zionsville Community Schools receiving less than Carmel. The Indiana Dept. of Education’s funding formula provides the same amount of subsidy for every student, but a complexity index that factors in poverty levels determines which districts will receive more funds – and which will receive less.
Larry DeBoer, a Purdue professor of agricultural economics who studies Indiana referenda, said the system has created a balancing act between the legal mandate to provide equal education at public schools and the ability for local communities to customize and enhance their offerings. Many district officials – in Indiana and elsewhere – would love to see their programs enhanced through locally supported taxes, he said, but they know the residents can’t afford it.
“Sometimes, in places like Carmel, the equal level of education just isn’t enough for folks, so you also want to have the ability of people to set their public services at the level they would prefer, (what they’re) willing to pay,” he said. “So you’ve got this tension or tradeoff between equity and choice.”
Support for the referendum has been widespread. Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard, the OneZone Chamber of Commerce and MIBOR Realtors PAC are among those publicly endorsing the plan.
In 2010, when the referendum passed with 58 percent of the vote, two factors led to a more vocal opposition, according to Patricia Hackett, Carmel Schools Yes! co-chair and a CCS school board member from 2008 to 2016.
She said the district was asking for a 16-cent tax increase in 2010 and that the state’s big changes in education funding still were novel and unfamiliar to voters.
“Carmel Clay school district was among the first districts to put this question to their community,” she said. “A precedent had not been set on how to go about running a referendum campaign (or) how a member of the community might receive this message.”
Seven years later, some still are not convinced a replacement referendum is the best option for Carmel students and taxpayers. Eric Morris, a Home Place resident choosing not to send his children to Carmel schools, is among the few raising questions publicly. He said studies show that increased resources for districts might lead to less parental involvement, which weakens schools. He also is concerned that school officials have not yet planned which teachers and programs to cut if the referendum fails.
“The world will not end if this fails, but it could give our community a real chance to make informed choices based on data and studies versus basing programs simply on the appetite for how much taxation is acceptable to the voting public,” he stated in an email to Current.
DeBoer is not surprised that support for the referendum is easy to find in Carmel.
Public perception of voter-approved taxes to support schools has changed in recent years, he said, at least in municipalities that previously approved a referendum. Before May 2012, only 42 percent of referenda passed in Indiana, he said, with 71 percent being approved since then.
The first referendum votes in Indiana occurred in 2008 at the peak of the Great Recession. DeBoer said economic confidence having grown since then might be a factor in their more frequent approvals as well as school districts and their PACs becoming “more sophisticated” in campaigning for them, often hiring a consultant to manage the process.
Wahl and Hackett said that CCS did not hire a consultant.
“CCS has been very conscientious these past seven years to put in place several practices to prepare for this time of a replacement referendum,” Hackett said. “In addition, CCS is asking their community for a flat tax, not a tax increase. This, admittedly, is an easier message.”
Wahl said that 2012 changes in state law that prohibited school districts from using its own resources to promote a referendum have forced everyone to treat the process as a campaign.
“(State law) says if you want to run a referendum campaign, it must be with the use of a PAC, so by definition the law pushes us into a political arena,” Wahl said. “It’s the same criteria to form a PAC if somebody’s campaigning for an office.”
The only funds CCS is spending on the referendum are for the election itself. Wahl said the district has not been told how much that will be.
Hamilton County Elections Office Administrator Kathy Richardson said, based on 2013 election data, she estimates CCS will owe approximately $50,000. No one will know the final calculation until after the election.
“Once it’s over, I’ll tally it all up and send them a bill,” she said.
DeBoer said “self-selection” might also play a role in referenda being approved in greater numbers, with districts figuring out whether their voters are likely to approve one through the years. Eight of the 10 referenda on the May ballot in Indiana are from school corporations that have passed one before.
“Early on, everybody was a rookie,” DeBoer said. “It might not be so much the success rate has improved because of change in voter attitude or changes in the economy; it’s just that those who are trying are those that can win.”
ON THE BALLOT
Carmel voters will see the following question on the May 2 ballot:
“For the seven (7) calendar years immediately following the holding of the referendum, shall Carmel Clay Schools impose a property tax rate that does not exceed nineteen cents ($0.19) on each one hundred dollars ($100) of assessed valuation and that is in addition to all other property taxes imposed by the school corporation for the purpose of funding academic and support programs, teaching positions, and any other educational needs of the school corporation?”
The referendum approved in 2010 will expire Dec. 31, so CCS officials felt it was crucial to take a vote in May to make sure they could have a plan in place by the end of the year, whatever the voters decide.
May referenda also are more likely to pass than those held in November, according to the Indiana University Center for Evaluation & Education Policy, a fact Wahl said CCS considered.
DeBoer said May referenda might have more success because in November voters often show up for other races and are often not eager to vote for a tax they may know little about.
“(In May), only people who are interested in that particular topic are going to show up,” DeBoer said. “In November, a lot of people who show up are interested in the presidential election or the governor’s race. They may not even know there’s a referendum on the ballot.”
State law limits referendums to seven years, which is why CCS is holding a special election with nothing else on the ballot. State Rep. Jerry Torr, who represents Carmel, authored a bill that would allow districts to set a referendum for a maximum of eight years to allow it to be on the ballot with other races and minimize election costs for school districts, but the bill did not make it out of committee.