Op-Ed: Growth and Your Local School Board

July 12, 2016

by Martina Webster

Pretend you are in the market for a house in your Indiana community. What criteria would you give your buyer’s agent? A common request goes like this: a) within an x radius of their job (the commuting distance is a matter of wide personal preference, honestly); b) with y bedrooms and z baths; and c) preferably in q school district.

Since the Indiana legislature changed the laws allowing competition among school districts, the district is less important than it used to be. Some, however, are no longer allowing transfers because they simply no longer have the space.

The demand there has exceeded supply. Economically speaking, what should that tell us? Shouldn’t the legislature take a look at those districts that are having to turn people away? After all, each of those students brings with them a large pot of money for the favored district, so, logically, why would they turn anyone away?

My bet is that those areas where the demand is outpacing supply is where you will find overall rising housing values or higher assessed values along with a quick resale home-inventory turnover.

Now, some people will stop me there to say, “Duh, the rich neighborhoods have the best schools.” I counter that the schools themselves are driving up the value of the properties within their districts. Higher demand equals higher price. The higher the assessed values, the more money the school district has in their tax pot.

In real estate, I’ve never had someone ask me to find them a home close to, say, a Walmart. Nor have I ever had someone use a (insert your favorite subsidized, politically favored business) as the starting point in their search for a dream home.

So Indiana has it backwards.The Chamber of Commerce has it backwards. The Indiana Economic Development Corporation — you guessed it — has it backwards. Stop buying what they are selling.

Indiana communities are hampered by a mindset of “if you build it, they will come.” As evidence, a recent Ball State University study found that Tax Increment Financing (TIF) at best only negligibly increases property values. I’ve argued that much of Indiana’s TIFs are simply chasing development, not creating it.

But why? Go back to the schools.

For most taxing districts, the school corporation controls the largest pot of property taxes. Often, the school district is the reason a local government finds itself up against the tax cap and struggling to meet the needs of the community. TIF becomes its solution — simply a way to take back a piece of the pie and not have to share with the school district.

So they “TIF the businesses,” that is, the very properties already fully taxed up to the 3 percent caps. The tool they are using to supposedly “create” economic development is now stealing taxes from an important piece of the community’s overall economic picture, the public schools.

No, I don’t think the majority of schools need more money. What they do need, though, are new school boards. They need more teachers and fewer administrators. They need to understand that billboards won’t bring children into their schools. They need common sense.

A step in that direction ironically is to restore partisan school-board races. For “nonpartisan” in this case does not mean a candidate is not partisan; it just means voters have no idea of the candidate’s ideology. If school boards would again concentrate on education rather than on hidden special interests, our communities could begin attracting young millennial families and build real, lasting growth.

Martina Webster, a Realtor for 17 years, represents District 1 on the Sellersburg Town Council. She wrote this at the request of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.


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