It looks as if the Madison Consolidated School board and superintendent will seek a referendum to see if the public will support building a new high school.

Currently, school districts are required to conduct a referendum, or vote, when considering elementary or middle school projects that will cost more than $10 million or high school projects costing more than $20 million.

But a proposal working its way through the statehouse could change those limits, reducing the threshold for a public vote on high school projects.

It was reported last week in the Johnson County Journal of Franklin that an Indiana University researcher tracking school referendums said the new limits could lead to schools presenting leaner projects to get their plans approved. But local school officials are concerned that the lower limit could prevent them from doing needed expansions, renovations or repairs in the future if voters say no.

Referendums are hard to pass in these economic times. Communities that in the past could be counted on to support education initiatives are now finding fewer voters willing to go along with what they perceive to be brick and mortar projects.

Residents are able to protest and attempt to stop a building project that costs less than the referendum limits, but it requires voters to mobilize to collect signatures and get petitions signed. Referendums put the issue before all voters in the school district, which should provide an accurate picture of community sentiment.

Until there is a better way, a referendum is a fair system.

School building votes fail more often than they pass since the law requiring referendums was established in 2008. Sixteen of 40 school building referendums have passed, according to the Indiana University Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Schools initiated 32 referendums between 2008 and 2010 and passed 11 of them. Since then, eight projects have gone to vote, with five passing.

The reduction in referendums reflects school districts learning how difficult it is to win approval for a project and wondering whether taking it to voters is worth the effort, said Terry Spradlin, associate director of education policy at Indiana University.

"School districts are being much more selective and only moving forward if their likelihood of success is high," Spradlin said.

If the Madison administration plans to call for a referendum, now is the time to begin communicating the district's educational vision and needs with the public. We expect and welcome an open discussion that allows for public input.