The Herald Bulletin

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May 11, 2014

Maureen Hayden: Perception of schools can influence voters

INDIANAPOLIS — Ball State University economist Michael Hicks had some unwelcome news when he met with leaders of the scenic Ohio River town of Madison last summer, after they asked his advice on growing their community.

Despite a long list of assets, ranging from a strong manufacturing base to an abundance of recreational opportunities, he found the community had a weak link: its underperforming schools, measured by metrics and perception.

Hicks, who crunches those kind of numbers in his role as head of BSU’s Center for Business and Economic Research, warned the lack of confidence had consequences.

Last Tuesday, that prediction came to pass: Madison voters overwhelming turned down a $40 million referendum request from its school district. The money, to be raised with an increase on property taxes, would have gone toward major construction projects, including a new high school gymnasium.

Out of the 10 school referenda on the ballot Tuesday across the state, Madison was the only one that lost. The vote wasn’t close: 73 percent of voters said no, including one local Democratic activist who told the local newspaper she asked everyone she knew to do the same.

Post-election, Hicks’ analysis found that most of the successful referenda were in districts with schools rated high for academic performance and/or moving up on their benchmarks. Only two wanted more money for construction projects; the rest were to boost school operating or transportation funds — both areas hit by past cuts from the state.

Hicks’ conclusion: Taxpayers are ready to invest more in schools, but they want to see value — especially when it comes to putting more money into bricks-and-mortar.

“It’s easy to go to taxpayers and say, ‘We’re doing a good job and we’ll get better if we have extra resources,’ ” said Hicks. “It’s hard to go to taxpayers and say, ‘We’re not doing well, but we need this money to get better.’ But it’s extraordinarily hard to make the argument, ‘We can’t get the classroom right but we’re going to ask for a lot more money to build a new gymnasium.’”

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