Future of Schools

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.”

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”