Rural Schools & Indiana’s School Tax Levy Referendum

Written by Kristie LeBeau (PhD student in Development Sociology) as part of an assignment for the Polson Institute’s 2019 visiting faculty program course, “Inclusive Rural Development”, taught by Rural Sociologist Bettina Bock.

Rural schools are often seen as the center of their communities and the source of the community’s identity. When a school district is placed in a difficult financial situation, it often turns to the community for extra funds. Unsurprisingly, rural communities often rally to support their school. But what happens if a local community is unable afford the additional costs? Will the school be forced to make do with inadequate funding, unable to provide an optimum education for their rural youth? How will that community be seen in comparison to the other communities that were able to provide additional funds for their school district? This is the situation that many rural school districts in Indiana find themselves in due to the state’s School Tax Levy Referendum policy.

The School Tax Levy Referendum gives school districts the opportunity to place a request on the local ballot for an increase in local property taxes, providing additional funds for their district that is otherwise unable to fulfill its educational obligations with its current funds. In a 91% vote of approval, in my school district and community in Indiana, voters passed the referendum and agreed to increase their property taxes to help the school adequately pay for its expenditures. What a statement by the community—showing its support of the local school at an additional cost to themselves.

Yet, focusing on one community and one result produces a myopic view of this approach. To understand the policy we have to examine them not just by the result in one context, but across networks of school districts. We also have to ask, at the policy’s inception, what was the political economic factors that motivated its creation? The School Tax Levy Referendum legitimizes the state’s removal of itself from the problem of inadequate school funding and places the responsibility of improving a school’s funds completely in the hands of a local community’s taxpayers. By doing so, the state doesn’t have to answer to questions of inadequate funding, and rural districts are left to figure out how to fund their schools’ high per student expenditures despite inadequate funding. Sometimes, communities can’t bear the additional cost.

This is an issue for districts that have successfully passed the School Tax Levy Referendum and for those whose residents could not sustain an increase in taxes; for rural, suburban, and urban school districts alike. I would argue that these districts should reach across the rural-urban divide and unite as a coalition of communities that questions the adequacy of funding that the state provides. As such, school districts can work collaboratively in the urban-rural interface in order to come up with a cooperative solution to present to the state. No longer should the pressure be placed on individual communities to provide for their schools—the heart of their community—but rather, the pressure should be placed on the state to provide more adequate funding for its schools—the heart of the state’s future.


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