The MCCSC Referendum and Lessons from the Past

With a school referendum on the horizon, it’s a good time to go back and review the results of the last Monroe County Community School Corporation referendum back in 1999.  However, comparisons with previous elections are tricky.  And there are important differences between the current situation and the one faced in 1999.

This time the referendum will be in response to major cuts in education funding, whereas the one in 1999 would have provided additional resources such as longer school days and more support staff.  It’s also a different kind of election.  1999 was primarily a municipal election including races for city council, city clerk and mayor.  The 2010 election will include many different county offices, townships, state legislature, U.S Congress, three school board races, and perhaps most unusual, a constitutional amendment to limit property taxes.

Statewide, the political landscape has changed.  Our state and nation are in the midst of a tax revolution.  The impact of the Tea Party Movement is still a big question, but there is no doubting the resolve and outspokenness of this movement.  The Governor and Superintendent of Schools have aggressively championed school reform and controlling education spending.

In 1999 the only thing County voters had to vote for was the referendum.  Despite that fact 7,605 voters from outside the city limits came out to vote.  Driven to the polls by a successful get out-the-no-vote effort, 80% of them voted against the referendum.

But even in the city of Bloomington, 54% of voters rejected the referendum: 4,225 voted in favor and 5,274 against.  The 1999 referendum lost by a 2 to 1 margin.  Meanwhile, Republicans had a rough year.  Democrats won all three seats in a contested at-large city council race that included incumbent Republican Rod Young and the popular GOP candidate Joyce Poling.  Democrats also won big for City Clerk and Mayor in what were essentially uncontested races.

How could this happen in a Democratic stronghold like Bloomington?  Don’t all people who vote Democrat vote in favor of school funding?  As it turns out, our political landscape is more complicated than that, especially regarding school referendums.

Throughout the unfolding school funding crisis of the past 6 months, Tony Bennett and Mitch Daniels have been portrayed as the bad guys.  Parents and teachers right on up to school board members have vocally demonized them in the newspaper, in online forums, at board meetings, and even during rallies and protests.  Is this part of a coordinated strategy to get people fired up for the referendum?  Or just an expression of raw frustration, a collective teeth-gnashing?  More importantly, will it alienate more voters than it draws in?

Let’s take a look at the 2008 election results.  In 2008, Daniels received 28,482 votes in Monroe County, for 47% of the vote, while Bennett received 21,189 votes for 36% of the vote.  Even taking out the roughly 7,200 voters from Richland and Bean Blossom Townships who can’t vote on an MCCSC referendum, that still leaves a large number of voters who likely have at least a lingering affinity for these outspoken state leaders.

Do all those Mitch/Tony supporters still support them?  Do they really believe, along with the governor, that schools need to tighten their belts regardless of the pain?  Is it possible that they won’t vote for a referendum in any form on philosophical grounds?   How would a referendum need to be structured and presented in order to get their support?   Are there voters out there who are so unhappy with public education that they believe schools can only be reformed though attrition?  Is it possible that many voters really don’t want to pay more in taxes to support schools?

These are the kinds of questions MCCSC consultants will hopefully answer through public input, fearless polling and keen analysis.  What is the best way to reach out to swayable voters who are not entirely unsympathetic to the Governor’s rhetoric?  Is it to portray their attitudes as ignorant and morally wrong?  Generally when people are confronted with aggressive opposition they tend to dig in and justify their positions.  Could the outcome be another anti-referendum movement, like the one in 1999?

Past election results indicate that a successful referendum is far from certain in Monroe County.  At least, one can reasonably assume that a November vote will be close.  Could it withstand an organized effort to defeat the referendum?