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Wording makes the difference?

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A November ballot question has been finalized that will ask voters to help pay for prekindergarten for 4-year-olds with financial need.

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. is seeking an additional 5 cents per $100 assessed valuation, which would generate $1.8 million annually through increased property taxes.

The money would cover full-time prekindergarten costs for the estimated 450 students a year in the Columbus-based school district whose families cannot afford educational opportunities available through private preschools or tuition-based public programs.

If approved, the referendum would cost taxpayers with a home assessed at $100,000 an additional $16 per year if they took standard deductions and exemptions. A taxpayer with a home assessed at $150,00 would pay about $32 more a year with the deductions and exemptions.

A nearly identical referendum failed in the 2012 election by about 1,700 votes, or 46 percent to 54 percent.

But Superintendent John Quick said the wording will make all the difference — and it got final approval this week from the Department of Local Government Finance.

The question in 2012 only asked if taxpayers would approve the tax increase. This year’s ballot will ask taxpayers if they will approve an increase specifically “for the purpose of funding prekindergarten for four-year-olds with financial need.”

Now that the referendum wording has been approved, the question will be sent to the Bartholomew County Council and the Bartholomew Circuit Court clerk to be placed on the ballot.

The change in wording was possible because of Senate Bill 207, which amended the law governing school referendums. It allows districts to explain how tax increase proceeds would be used.

Quick worked closely with one of the bill’s authors, state Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, and sponsor, state Rep. Milo Smith. He also testified in support of the bill to the General Assembly.

The bill was signed into law March 26 by Gov. Mike Pence and went into effect July 1.

Quick and school board member Bob Abrams both worked the voting polls all day in November 2012 and recalled many voters asked questions about the referendum because they did not understand the question.

“At least this time, we can have a question where the debate is about funding prekindergarten and not just about raising taxes,” Quick said.

Ryan Neville-Shepard, an assistant professor of communication studies at IUPUC whose specialization is in political communication, said the more-specific wording will improve the referendum’s chance of passing.

“Voters who are cynical about forking over tax dollars to ambiguous causes will find some relief in the clarity of the proposal,” he said.

Neville-Shepard said political consultants and linguists have for a long time said that politics is a game of wordsmithing, and the new question strikes an entirely different emotional tone.

“It’s easy to reject the government’s request for higher taxes, but it’s a lot tougher to say no to four-year-olds in need,” he said.

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