If one word defines life during a pandemic, "uncertainty" probably sums it up best.

The same is true in this era for Indiana school districts seeking their community's approval of additional funding through a ballot referendum. State law requires any major construction project — those costing at least $17 million and to be paid for through a property-tax increase — to receive an OK from local voters.

Vigo County residents could face such a question in May. A series of 10 community meetings this month will help the Vigo County School Corp. determine whether to go forward with one of three options to rebuild or renovate the three county high schools at their present sites, with costs ranging from an additional 8.6 cents per $100 of assessed value on property on Option 1 to 24.8 cents for Option 2, to 36 cents for Option 3. If residents largely support one of the options, the School Board would identify that option on Dec. 27. Then, the board would vote Jan. 10 on whether to put the school-construction proposal on the May 4 primary election ballot, giving voters the final say.

If public sentiment opposes funding any of the proposals, the VCSC and the School Board would put off the referendum.

If community support for modernizing the high schools leads to one of the options going onto the May ballot, its potential for voter approval isn't easy to predict. The track record for other school funding referendums around Indiana since 2019 is uneven.

Hoosier school districts put 41 funding referendums on election ballots in the three elections bookending the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — May 2019, November 2019 and June 2020. Voters said "yes" to 29 of those. Eight of the 13 involving capital projects — such as school construction — also passed, according to calculations by Larry DeBoer, an Indiana property tax expert and Purdue University agricultural economics professor emeritus.

In particular, the June 2020 election — Indiana's COVID-rescheduled primary — showed Hoosiers receptive to their local schools' requests. Voters approved 16 of the 18 referendums then, including all five involving capital projects. Amid shutdowns, curtailed public gatherings and schools finishing their years online, Indiana residents supported the referendums.

"That was surprising, absolutely," Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, said Wednesday. "But that just shows, in difficult times like a pandemic or a recession, people value public education."

As the pandemic soon worsened, fewer school funding proposals reached the ballot booths. Only seven referendums total popped up on ballots around Indiana in the last three elections — November 2020, May 2021 and the most recent election on Tuesday. Four of the seven passed.

It's hard to pinpoint a specific reason for the sparse number of referendums, compared to the large batch in June 2020.

"I don't know what's going on out there," DeBoer said of the decline in school funding requests.

Still, he sees some possible causes. A significant influx of federal COVID-19 relief funds may have solved some temporary needs, DeBoer speculated. State funding, bolstered by the federal relief measures, also could've eased school districts' financial concerns. And, the pandemic's "super-hyper-partisan atmosphere," as DeBoer put it, may be causing school districts — already dealing with protests over basic coronavirus mitigation efforts like wearing face masks inside schools — to scrap referendums.

Indeed, the VCSC and the School Board also could find "the time is not right and won't move any project forward" for May 2022, Vigo superintendent Rob Haworth said Monday.

Another factor that could inhibit school funding referendums could be their wording on election ballots. Legislators in the Indiana General Assembly decided last April to require school referendum ballot questions to include the "estimated average property-tax increase on a homestead," instead of the previous referendum language detailing the actual property-tax increase in cents per $100 of a home's assessed valuation.

Thus, a referendum on Tuesday's special-election ballot in Elkhart County took 134 words (and numbers) to ask voters to approve a maximum tax rate of 32 cents per $100 of assessed property value to support operations in the Concord Community Schools. It would have extended an existing referendum approved in 2014, and due to expire next month, at a lower tax rate. The referendum was narrowly turned down. By contrast, the operational referendum passed by Vigo County voters in 2019, before legislators changed the law, contained 84 words.

"These ballot questions are getting kind of long," DeBoer said. "I wonder if we're taxing voters' minds, given the few minutes they have in the voting booths."

The Indiana School Boards Association's legislative agenda for the upcoming 2022 session calls on the General Assembly to reinstate the previous referendum language stipulations, Spradlin said. The use of estimated average property-tax increases means that some voters will actually pay less than the listed amount, others more, and some in the middle, he said.

"If the intent is to better inform taxpayers, it seems misguided," Spradlin said of the new law.

In the meantime, that's the playing field for school funding proposals. "Every district has the duty and burden to explain the need and the benefit" in each referendum, Spradlin said. Likewise, residents should keep in mind that "successful, thriving schools" often are a community's largest employer, a driver of improved home values and the primary source of community pride, as well as a foundation for kids futures.

Just as students tackle homework in classes, there's plenty of it to be done by school leaders and residents.

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