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May/June 2017

IASB offers referendum data, trends
By Gary Adkins

What does history tell us about the likelihood of a successful referendum?

The Illinois Association of School Boards recently updated and reformatted its database of school finance referendums for bond issues, school tax rate propositions, and county school facilities sales tax outcomes. Current results and previous election results going back to 1989 are available online and illustrated on page 19.

A look at the data shows the following trends.

The school district building bond referendum success rate has been nearly on par with the historic norm in recent years. Voters approved 140 of 248 such referendums on ballots from March 2006 through November 2016 (56 percent). Historically, 58 percent of school building bond issues are approved, with voters passing 718 of 1,240 building bond issues from November 1989 through November 2016.

However, despite the near-normal success rate of such questions in recent years, the number of school building bond issues appearing on ballots has fallen since 2008. Since November 2008, no election has produced more than 15 building bond issues. Four of the five elections immediately before that produced over 15 successful building bond issues, with a high count of 41 in March 2006, and 31 in April 2007. Prior to 2008, no year in memory failed to produce at least one election with more than 15 building bond issues, and 30 or more was common. The high count for an election in modern times was 77 building bond issues in November 1998; fully 80 percent of those, a total of 62 proposals, were adopted at that election.  

Why the big decline in numbers? Some might conjecture that effects of the Great Recession, which began in 2008, were responsible for this decline in the number of building bond proposals placed before voters. Because school boards are generally responsive to local conditions, including economic conditions, many boards of education may have chosen not to seek to borrow for facilities upgrades during the recession or in its immediate wake.

But the contemporary trend in outcomes of working cash bond propositions appears to be more favorable. Working cash passage rates are accelerating. The success rate was extremely favorable last year, in particular, with five of six passing in March 2016 and one proposal passing in November 2016. Those outcomes compare favorably with the typical passage rate of 59 percent experienced from November 1989 through November 2016. Indeed, the success rate over the past decade is well above the 59 percent historical norm, as fully 69 percent of working cash bond issues passed from March 2006 through November 2016.

The larger question for school boards, of course, is whether particular election-cycle timing appears to promise a more favorable outcome for bond issues. The answer from the historical record for November 1989 through 2016 is that a finance bond election in even-numbered years has generally produced better results than in odd-numbered years.

For building bond questions, the passage rate has stood at 64 percent in even-numbered year elections, both in the spring and the fall, well exceeding the mean average success rate of 58 percent for all elections historically. Furthermore, the 64 percent success rate produced for building bond questions in even-numbered years far outstrips the 49 percent success rate seen in odd-year elections.

For working-cash bond proposals, the results are much the same, except that success is even more pronounced in the first election of an even-numbered year, with an 80 percent success rate (17 of 21 passing). This outcome compares most favorably to working cash proposition success seen at April elections in odd-numbered years, with a low 44 percent success rate (only 15 of 34 passing) for the period of November 1989 through 2016.

This database information is part of IASB’s collection of information regarding school board and school-district-related elections and can be explored at

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