Trust the People on School Building Projects

January 28, 2008

Indiana Writers Group column for Jan. 30 and thereafter (720 words)

by Andrea Neal

INDIANAPOLIS – Lawmakers are getting needless cold feet over a plan to let taxpayers decide the fate of school construction jobs. Indiana House Democrats have watered down a bill that would require a referendum on bond issues for expensive public building projects. They don’t trust the people.

Their amendment exempted from public vote any construction directly related to education, such as classroom, school libraries, or laboratory space. Although 40 states have such referenda, the education lobby insisted that Hoosier voters are too stingy to spend money for decent schools.

The concern seems misplaced considering our track record supporting public education.  Indiana ranks 22nd in per pupil funding and 17th in average teacher salary. In almost every category of spending, Hoosiers do well by their students.

Perhaps too well, when it comes to building projects. Continuing a longstanding trend, the cost per square foot for Indiana school construction exceeded the national average in 2006. (2007 numbers are not yet available). For example, Indiana high school additions in 2006 cost an average of $317.39 per square foot, compared to a national average of $218.

Since May 2005, cost “thresholds” imposed by Gov. Daniels’ Department of Local Government Finance have helped rein in so-called Taj Mahal projects. For the first time in a long time, new facilities and expansions were smaller in size than the national average in 2006. Even so, school construction was a chief culprit in rising property tax bills last summer. According to the governor’s office, property taxes for school debt service and capital projects rose 8 percent per year from 1984 to 2006.

The referendum process would give people more say before tax levies go up to pay the interest on bonds. Critics fear that schools will fall apart if voters have to approve new construction or remodeling.

Experience suggests otherwise. In Illinois, voters approved school bonds in 64 percent of referenda since 1973. Since 1997, Ohio voters have favored projects 85 percent of the time.

Nationally, according to American School & University, “2006 was a record-breaking year in terms of the number of school-construction bond issues proposed (920) and passed (603). It also set a record for the largest total-dollar-amount proposed ($51.2 billion) and passed (almost $40 billion). Looking ahead, the focus on facilities construction and improvement shows no sign of slowing.”

Rep. David L. Niezgodski, D-South Bend, sponsored the House amendment to exempt classroom construction projects from referendum. Under his proposal, votes would occur for school gyms, swimming pools and athletic facilities and other government buildings such as jails.

During floor debate, Rep. Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale, asked, “Do you think the people we serve are stupid or dumb or unable to make decisions in their own right?” The answer came a few minutes later. The amendment passed 50-44.

The mere prospect of referendum has school officials looking to expedite projects on the drawing boards. At a recent forum, constituents of Center Grove Schools accused the administration of doing just that.

As reported in the Jan. 19 Star, resident Mike Coombs questioned the plan to demolish two elementary schools and build a new one to go online around 2010.
"They're trying to ram this through now when it's easy because they're afraid they'll have to go through the voters if they wait," Coombs said.

“It's not that we're afraid of a referendum,” replied Superintendent Steve Stephanoff. "That misses the point. It's that a referendum slows everything down. If the community wants this project to go forward, I would like it to be started before the process becomes two or three times more complicated."

Actually, a referendum would be less complicated than the strange petition-remonstrance process now in place for citizens wanting to stop projects. Opponents of a bond issue must initiate a signature campaign and collect more names than proponents. Since 1995, Indiana has had 94 petition-remonstrance drives. The opponents halted the project 45 times. But the vast majority of bonds go through without a remonstrance. The process is so confusing and time consuming for citizens that the Department of Local Government Finance just introduced an online “toolkit” to help guide citizens through it.

The need for referenda is obvious. Imagine being given unlimited funds to design your own house. Now, imagine a home within the family budget. It’s the difference between the current system and one with referendum.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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