Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Are Indiana's "Rich" School Districts Getting Richer?

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Election season is upon us, and aside from the usual blustering politicians and hopefuls, there’s another question appearing on ballots across the state: Will voters raise their own taxes to support local school districts? Political predictions are notoriously difficult to make, but the past can be a guide. We took a look back at the history of referendums in Indiana.

(Feel free to sort through the data yourself and post your thought in the comments below. Keep in mind, these numbers only include general fund or operating referendum.  Referendums used to fund special construction projects or to pay debts were not included.)

So what are the characteristics of a district which is successful in passing a referendum?

Expensive Property

According to policy analyst David Dressler with IUPUI’s Center for Excellence in Leadership in Learning, the key component in passing a referendum is high property values.

“The bigger districts, especially districts where much of the tax revenue comes from business and industry, those referendums tend to pass — like in Hamilton Southeastern or recently in Perry Township in Marion County,” says Dressler. “Whereas referendums in smaller communities, and especially communities without significant businesses valuation, those referendums tend to fail because the amounts of increase tend to be larger.  The result is for the rich to get richer and the poor to suffer more.”

Our analysis seems to bear out the conclusion that high property values lead to more successful referendum attempts.  The five districts with the highest median home values all passed a referendum in the last two years, with the exception of one.  Voters in Zionsville defeated the measure by a full 2,300 out of a total of ten thousand votes.

Five Districts With The Highest Property Values

District Pass/Fail Median Home Value
Zionsville School Corporation Failed $352,800
Carmel Clay Schools Passed $276,700
Hamilton Southeastern Schools Passed $190,300
Crown Point Community School Corporation Passed $173,800
West Lafayette School Corporation Passed $171,000

These aren’t just the top five most expensive places on our list — as we’ve reported, they are, in fact, some of the most expensive properties in the state. For example, Hamilton Southeastern Schools located in Fishers is home to many of the state’s professional athletes and businesspeople.

Districts With The Five Highest Average Incomes

District Pass/Fail Median Household Income
Zionsville School Corporation Failed $108,440
Carmel Clay Schools Passed $96,692
Hamilton Southeastern Schools Passed $82,961
Noblesville Schools Passed $69,209
Avon Community School Corporation Failed $66,500

Surprisingly enough, income does not appear to be a major factor in determining the success or failure of a referendum.  Even if Monroe County Community School Corporation (students at Indiana University Bloomington account for nearly half of the city’s population, yet earn substantially less than full time residents of the town) is eliminated from the analysis, referendums pass or fail at about the same rate among the both the wealthiest districts and the poorest.


Ashlyn Nelson studies referendums at IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.  Her research indicates that small, isolated, rural school districts are among the least likely to attempt to raise money through a ballot issue.

According to several superintendents with whom StateImpact spoke, the reason is simple–poverty.  Ty Mungle, for example, has helmed the 1,400 student Eastern Greene School district for about three years.  He says his district has had a hard time maintaining any level of program diversity because they are constantly faced with the risk of losing teachers.

“We have one teacher in many of our elective couses,” says Mungle. “When you look at agriculture. One in family and consumer science, one in industrial technology, one in foreign language, one in business.”

Yet he says his district has avoided a referendum– largely because of the area’s 16 percent poverty rate.

Looking at the numbers, only seven districts with fewer than 2,000 students ever attempted a general fund referendum.  Of those, all but three failed.

As a companion to this piece, we’re conducting a survey.  Click here to vote in our interactive poll and feel free to leave comments.  We want to hear your thoughts.  Would you support a referendum in your area?

Correction- An earlier version of this story used the word average rather than median when referring to “median home value” and “median household income”.


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