IPS referendum

IPS board votes to ask taxpayers for $936 million to pay for teacher raises, building improvements and special education

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The Indianapolis Public Schools board voted Thursday to ask voters for $936 million dollars this May.

District leaders said that in the face of declining state and federal funding, raising local property taxes is the only tool IPS has to pay for teacher raises, building maintenance, busing, and quality programs for students with disabilities.

All five of the IPS School Board members present voted in favor of adding both referendums to the ballot. School board members Kelly Bentley and Venita Moore were absent.

Board member Diane Arnold said the district has worked to be more transparent in its spending and reduces its expense, but it needs more money to continue operating.

“We’re asking for the basic things for our children,” said Arnold. “The children of IPS deserve the same type of high-quality teachers (and) safe buildings that children that live in every other district deserve.”

Two referendums to increase property taxes will be placed on the May primary ballot. One would raise up to $92 million per year for eight years to pay for operating expenses. That money would be used to pay for special education services, transportation and regular maintenance, according to the district.

But the lion’s share of the money raised each year would go to regular teacher raises. The district says that it expects to spend about $66 million — or 72 percent of the funding — on pay for teachers. It wouldn’t bring huge raises for teachers, but IPS estimates it would allow the district to continue giving teachers raises of about 2 percent each year.

The other referendum asks voters to support $200 million in improvements to school buildings, primarily safety updates such as new lighting and door security.

The proposal drew mixed feedback from community members who showed up to speak at public meetings Tuesday and Thursday.

It’s the largest tax increase the district has ever pursued. Whether the politically risky gambit pays off will have huge implications for the state’s largest district. If the referendum prevails, IPS leaders say that besides pay raises for teachers, it will help pay the high price tag for special education.

If it fails, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee warns teacher pay could freeze, the district could cut some of its busing and the quality of special education services could decline.

“We didn’t arrive at this number based on what we thought would be politically appropriate and soothing, but what we actually need to continue to thrive as an organization,” said Ferebee.

Most IPS teachers have received regular raises since 2015, but for several years prior to that, teacher salaries were frozen. That wreaked havoc on the district’s ability to attract and retain teachers, said Ferebee.

If both referendums pass, they will increase taxes by as much as $0.73 per $100 of assessed value on a home. A property owner with a home at the district’s median value — $123,500 — would see property taxes increase by about $29.15 more per month.

At the meeting Thursday, many people spoke in of favor raising taxes. But there were also several people, primarily regular critics of the administration, who don’t trust the administration would use the money wisely.

One of those with concerns was Alex Butler, the guardian of an Arsenal Technical High School student. He said that money is important in helping schools, but Arsenal has other serious issues such as inconsistent leadership.

Butler said he is a homeowner, and he expects his tax bill to go up by $566 per year.

“I have the money to give,” he said. But he is concerned that it will be inefficiently used or will be used to improve buildings that are later sold. “I’m not sure that I will vote for it as long as there’s not more transparency.”

Several IPS educators, community members and business leader spoke in support of the proposal.

John Thompson, a local business owner and member of several boards, said that when companies are looking at where to locate, one of the most important factors is whether a region has skilled workers.

“I am a major property owner in Center Township, in the IPS district. This will cost me and my company thousands of dollars. I think it is worth it,” he said. “There is no better investment than investing in young people.”

IPS referendum

Indianapolis Public Schools offers buyouts to up to 150 teachers

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Indianapolis Public Schools is offering $20,000 buyouts to teachers who retire.

Indianapolis Public Schools is offering teachers $20,000 payments to retire, in a move that could cut costs amid a severe deficit.

Nearly 250 educators are eligible for the buyout, which would be contributed directly to retirement plans for teachers who take the offer, according to the district.

District officials say the offer is not a cost-cutting move but rather an effort to enhance the district’s ability to set its budget for next year and plan for its hiring needs. In a written response to questions, head of human resources Mindy Schlegel wrote the offer “is not a buyout, but an early notice incentive.”

“The district is focused on incentivizing early notice of planned retirements so we can apply those notices to budgeting and staffing work principals are doing now versus addressing those challenges in June,” she wrote. “Knowing staffing shifts early is one of the most critical levers they can use in planning for next year.”

Teachers have 11 days to make their decision. They must notify the administration by 5 p.m. on April 20 if they want to take the buyout, according to the district. The district apparently could back out of the deal, though — officials have until May 4 to decide whether to go forward with the program.

A minimum of 100 and a maximum of 150 educators would have to accept the offer for the district to go through with it. If 150 teachers accept the $20,000, the payouts could cost the district as much as $3 million. The district could ultimately save money even if it replaces retired teachers, because veteran teachers are paid more.

When asked how much the offer could save the district in the long run, Schlegel said the payments are “not really about cost savings.”

School board member Mary Ann Sullivan said the offer has a number of benefits. It could help the district get a clearer picture of its staff and finances at a time when it is facing a severe budget shortfall. But it could also help the district avoid laying off teachers, she said.

“If you can manage to not do that — avoid that situation — most people would think that’s a good goal,” she said.

To take advantage of the deal, teachers need to be eligible for regular retirement under the rules of the Indiana Public Retirement System. Teachers as young as 55 years old could be eligible if they have at least 30 years of service. Older teachers would be eligible with fewer years of service. Teachers would need to retire at the end of the 2017-18 school year.

The retirement plan administrator, VALIC, will host a session 4:30 to 6 p.m. Thursday in the boardroom of the Education Services Center, according to an email sent to teachers and obtained by Chalkbeat.

“I hate to lose teachers,” said Rhondalyn Cornett, president of the Indianapolis Education Association. But the offer could be desirable for teachers who were trying to decide whether they can afford to retire, she said. “It’s a good opportunity because I do know there are some teachers who are going to want it.”

Some teachers were already considering retirement because they were displaced during the high school closing process, Cornett said.

The incentive for higher-paid teachers to retire comes at the same time as the district is considering ways to cut costs after withdrawing a request for more funding from taxpayers. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has told RTV6 the district might also freeze hiring and furlough administrators. Last week, Schlegel told Chalkbeat the district had not yet decided whether teachers might be laid off.

In her email about retirement incentives, Schlegel wrote she did not anticipate the plan would affect class size. Whether the district replaces teachers will depend on the subjects they teach, she wrote.

The district has been grappling with budget deficits for years, but the issue has become more severe in recent months. District leaders say the budget crunch is caused by declining state and federal funding as well as the high cost of operating expenses such as raises for teachers.

In November, the administration released a plan to appeal to voters to increase property taxes and school funding. But following a rocky rollout and campaign, district leaders first reduced their request and then withdrew the referendum. They are currently working with the Indy Chamber to review finances and craft a request that would appear on the November ballot.

IPS referendum

147 Indianapolis educators still don’t know where they will work next year

Thomas Barwick | Getty Images

Nearly 150 Indianapolis Public Schools educators don’t know where they will teach next year, more than six months after the district announced that many high school teachers would be required to reinterview for their positions.

The administration displaced 418 certified staff for 2018-19 as part of the closings of three of its seven high schools. Many of those educators have found positions, but 147 current high school staffers have not, according to the administration.

If the teachers are not hired for a new position, they remain on the displaced list. If they do not find positions by July 15, they will be placed in vacancies that match their license area, according to Mindy Schlegel, who heads human resources for the district. There are currently 163 open positions in secondary schools, and educators could move to middle or elementary schools depending on their licenses.

“We think that given the fact that 400 teachers were initially displaced as a part of the transition, this process has gone smoothly,” Schlegel wrote in an email.

The decision to displace teachers at high schools across the district — including campuses that will stay open — was designed to help educators find schools that are “the right fit.” But the move created additional uncertainty at a time when high schools were already in upheaval, and some teachers are dejected that they were required to apply and reinterview for positions they have held for years.

Now, there is additional uncertainty around the process because the district is in the midst of a severe budget crunch. After postponing a referendum that would have appealed to voters for tens of millions of dollars in extra funding each year, the district is facing a large shortfall next year. The district could impose hiring freezes or other cuts to spending on staff in order to help close that gap.

The administration has not yet decided whether to lay off any teachers through a reduction in force, Schlegel wrote, and her office is focused on placing high school teachers.

“The administration has had discussions with staff internally around what’s the best way to approach reducing expenditures, but also protecting the classroom and maintaining as many staff members as possible,” she wrote.

Not all high school teachers were displaced. Some educators remained in the same positions even if they transferred to new schools, including those with training to teach International Baccalaureate courses, arts specialists, life skills teachers, and career and technical teachers.

The move to require teachers to reinterview for positions was part of a broad push to reconfigure the district’s high schools in a bid to save money, improve the schools’ quality, and attract students. The district is closing three high schools and overhauling the academic approach at the four remaining campuses to create academies with focuses such as engineering, construction, and teaching. High school students also were required to select new schools based on their interests.

Media specialist Gregg Nowling considers himself lucky. After nearly five years at Arsenal Technical High School, he was required to reinterview for his position at the school, and he was not rehired. Within weeks, however, he had found a position at Harshman Middle School. Many of his friends have not yet found positions.

“There’s a lot of guilt there,” he said. “It’s horrible. You have teachers applying for jobs that they’ve had for years — that they’ve been really good at for years.”

Rhondalyn Cornett, president of the Indianapolis Education Association, said that many teachers are distrustful of the process. Veteran educators are frustrated watching younger teachers get placed before they do, she said, and some believe they have not gotten placed precisely because they are more experienced. (Although veteran teachers are higher paid, school principals pay the same amount regardless of experience level and the district absorbs the difference in pay.)

“It is demoralizing,” Cornett said.