Terre Haute isn’t Indianapolis, Gary or Noblesville.
The Haute also isn’t Cannelton, Culver, Hamilton, North Manchester, Nappanee, Whiteland or LaGrange — small towns scattered around Indiana. This city, like all those other places, has its unique virtues, problems and routines. Still, life here isn’t completely apples-and-oranges different. Terre Haute’s got asphalt roads, police and fire departments, occasional storms, poverty, festivals and schools, like other Hoosier locales.
Thus, decisions by voters in those aforementioned communities could offer hints on an impending issue in Vigo County.
Within the next few years, Vigo Countians will likely be asked to fund renovations or reconstruction of the local high schools.
That public question will come in the form of a referendum, included on a ballot during an upcoming election.
Residents in those other 10 Indiana cities, towns and rural areas voted on school-funding referenda in the Nov. 6 election, just as Vigo voters will someday do. The needs involved aren’t identical. Some districts sought increased property-tax funds for construction projects, others for operational costs.
Voters said yes to eight of the requests and no to four.
Baseball players would love to have the school districts’ success rate in this election as their batting average. Still, last week’s outcome for schools — .667 in national pastime statistics — marks the lowest on referenda since 2015, said Larry DeBoer, a Purdue University agricultural economics professor and property tax expert.
Voters have passed 50 of 60 school-funding referenda in Indiana since May 2016, according to DeBoer and Purdue’s Indiana Tax Rock Stars team.
That’s an increase since the school referendum process began following the Indiana Legislature’s enactment Public Law 146 in 2008. Since those referendums began in 2009, voters have approved 99 and defeated 50. Prior to May 2016, only 49 were passed and 40 rejected.
The success rate has improved during the past decade as Hoosiers and their local school districts have become more acclimated to the process, said Rob Haworth, the new Vigo County School Corp. superintendent. “We now realize, that’s going to be our future,” he said.
Public Law 146 “established referenda for school construction and general fund levies as a mechanism of school funding,” as the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University explains. Thus, districts seeking funds through an increase in property taxes beyond the state’s tax-cap limits must get voters’ approval through a referendum question on a public ballot.
Fifty-two of the referendums sought since 2009 involved school construction projects. Thirty-four received approval.
Like 21st-century baseball’s “sabermetrics” (basically, a stat for any scenario imaginable), the success of Indiana school referendum attempts can be measured even more precisely. Districts with previous referendums tries tend to get a “yes” more often than first-timers — 84 percent to 52. (In the Nov. 6 election, Noblesville received its sixth consecutive referendum approval, after losing its first.) The six of the property-tax rate increase matters, too. In last week’s election, four of the five highest rate proposals failed, while the seven lowest won, DeBoer calculated.
A tax-rate increase “needs to be reasonable, and each corporation has to make a case for its needs,” said Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, who crunched the numbers on school referenda during his previous work at the IU policy center.
Trends reflected in those numbers may hold relevance in Vigo County’s situation. Or not.
Discussion about the structural and technological problems at the aging Terre Haute North, Terre Haute South and West Vigo high schools has been ongoing for several years. Architectural and financial consultants in 2017 estimated the construction and financing of renovations to the three high schools (and West Vigo Middle School) at $221 million (the low-end option) and up to $430.6 million for reconstruction of the schools (and adding a fourth east-side high school).
Of course, those estimates and subsequent discussions came while the Vigo County School Corporation was embroiled in controversy following an FBI probe, with two administration staffers convicted of fraud in a kickback scheme and, later, state bribery charges being filed against former superintendent Danny Tanoos. He’s denied any wrongdoing. A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 19 on a motion to dismiss the charges.
That’s one of those “unique” elements, differentiating Vigo County from other districts. Another locally specific twist will be the public’s mood after county officials’ stubborn approach to funding a new jail and deciding to locate it on the Wabash riverfront.
Since taking over as the new superintendent in July, Haworth has begun an effort to broaden the community discussion, beyond just the future of the high schools, to cover all aspects of the school district’s needs. A series of “community conversations” at schools around the county continued this week to help the district build a comprehensive plan, which is in its “beginning stages,” Haworth said.
That inclusive approach — hinged on listening to the hopes and concerns of residents, who just elected two newcomers to the School Board — is wise. Rebuilding the community’s trust will be essential for a significant high school renovation or rebuilding referendum to even have a chance at passing.
Haworth has overseen five successful referendums in previous superintendent roles at Elkhart, Warsaw and Springs Valley. Even with Vigo County’s distinct situation, he believes the necessary steps are the same — defining the problem, exploring the options for a remedy and determining the best option that the community will support. All of that must unfold with the open involvement of residents and with full transparency.
Those communities showed a deep concern for their public schools during that decision making, Haworth said. He sees the same passion here. “We love our schools,” he said, “and we do have a commitment to excellence and don’t want to see those things slide in the future.”