IPS referendum

Who supports Indianapolis Public Schools’ bid for more money? It’s not clear.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

More than a month after Indianapolis’ largest school district unveiled plans to ask voters to increase property taxes, it is unclear what groups support it and who will shepherd it through the likely political fight.

Local groups that are often involved in district politics overwhelmingly told Chalkbeat that they have not decided whether to back the measure. And few high-profile community leaders have come out in support.

The district will face two contentious issues: voter concern about large increases in property tax bills, and questions about how the money will be spent. Many probable supporters are waiting to learn more, including whether district schools run by outside operators, known as innovation schools, would benefit.

District leaders are forming a political action committee to lead the campaign and they have not yet determined who will be at the helm, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said. When asked for high-profile supporters of the referendums, he said he did not want to be “presumptuous.”

“I haven’t asked anyone specifically,” he said. “I anticipate over the next couple of months we will see people come out and speak in support.”

The referendums, which are expected to appear on the ballot in May, would increase school funding by as much as $936 million over eight years. One referendum would pay for $200 million to improve school buildings, primarily safety updates. A second ballot measure would raise up to $92 million per year for eight years to pay for operating expenses, such as the cost of special education, with about $66 million dedicated to raises for teachers.

The appeal to voters is driven by declines in state and federal funding, according to the district. Ferebee’s administration says they have trimmed costs as much as possible without impacting academic quality. Without more money from taxpayers, they say they won’t be able to sustain spending on teacher raises and special education services.

Since the Indiana legislature capped property taxes and increased reliance on state money for school budgets in 2008, districts across the state have turned to taxpayers to raise money. More than a third of school districts have asked for tax increases, said Larry DeBoer, an economics professor with Purdue University. About 60 percent of the 164 referendums have been successful.

It is hard to predict which ballot measures will prevail, said DeBoer, who follows referendums across the state.

“So much of it depends on the quality of the campaign and the popularity of the superintendent,” he said. “I’ve given up attempting to predict.”

For now, several of the politically influential groups in the district are on the sidelines while they decide whether to support the measures. That includes the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Metropolitan Indianapolis Board of Realtors, the district teachers union, and Stand for Children, a parent organizing group that helped many of the board members win their seats.

The office of Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, a Democrat, offered a neutral statement from spokesperson Taylor Schaffer. “Mayor Hogsett urges residents to become educated on the proposal, and become engaged by letting their voices be heard at the ballot box in May,” she wrote.

Some of the most involved community members say they understand the need for more money, but they have not decided about the referendum. At least in part that’s because supporters and critics of innovation schools are waiting for the district to explain how much those schools would benefit from the tax increase.

Innovation schools are part of the district but managed by outside nonprofits or charter operators. The schools are often in district buildings and educate children who live in the district. But their teachers are employed by the operator and they cannot join the district union.

David Greene of Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis, which has been consistently critical of Ferebee’s administration, wrote in a statement that the group supports quality facilities and competitive teacher pay, but the community does not know what will happen with the money raised.

“It would be a great tragedy to the community if taxes were paid and facility upgrades happened to building(s) that went to innovation schools,” he added.

That’s also a sticking point for the teachers union. Even with the promise of raises for teachers, some members are ambivalent about the proposal because they are concerned the district will direct the money to innovation schools, said Rhondalyn Cornett, president of the Indianapolis Education Association.

“The state is starving districts using public funds to fund charter schools and parochial schools or private schools now. You don’t leave districts with a choice,” Cornett said. But teachers “don’t trust that the money is going to be used just for … IPS employees.”

At the same time, supporters of innovation schools, such as the parent organizing group Stand for Children, want to know more about how much money will go to those schools before deciding whether to back the measures.

Stand has members with children in traditional district and innovation schools, said executive director Justin Ohlemiller. They want to ensure that “kids across all the district regardless of school type are benefiting.”

Despite the uneasiness over how much of the money will go to innovation schools, many local leaders agree the district needs more money.

“This is the school district’s only way to get the adequate funding to give teacher pay raises and to adequately fund their operating needs at the school district level,” said Sen. Greg Taylor, a democrat who represents part of the district in the state legislature and has two children in IPS schools.

Taylor said he wants to understand the details of the referendums before endorsing them, but he is likely to support them. “There’s no doubt in my mind that teachers’ salaries need to go up a notch,” he added.

But some potential supporters balked at the steep tax increases the district is proposing. The operating referendum is one of the largest an Indiana school district has sought since 2009. If both referendums pass, taxes could go up as much as $28 per month for a house worth $123,500.

Betsy Wiley, who leads the pro-school choice advocacy group Institute for Quality Education, said that as an IPS taxpayer, she is personally leaning against the referendum because of the cost.

“I think investment in IPS makes sense. I think the size that they are asking for is what people may question,” said Wiley. “If I were on a fixed income, I would freak out.”

Asking people to vote to increase their taxes will always be a challenge, said school board President Mike O’Connor. But “people support paying teachers competitive wages. People support providing good, high-quality education.”

Over the next four months, it will be up to the supporters of the referendum to convince voters that increasing school funding will pay off.

“We’ve got work to do,” O’Connor said.

IPS referendum

Seeking property tax hikes, Indianapolis Public Schools considers selling headquarters

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

As Indianapolis Public Schools leaders prepare to ask voters for more money, they are considering a dramatic move: Selling the district’s downtown headquarters.

The administration is exploring the sale of its building at 120 E. Walnut St., which has housed the district’s central office since 1960, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Although architecturally dated, the concrete building has location in its favor. It sits on a 1.7-acre lot, just blocks from the Central Library, the cultural trail, and new development.

A sale could prove lucrative for the cash-strapped Indianapolis Public Schools, which is facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year.

A decision to sell the property could also convince voters, who are being asked to approve property taxes hikes in November, that the district is doing all it can to raise money. Two referendums to generate additional revenue for schools are expected to be on the ballot.

“IPS has been very committed and aggressive to its efforts to right-sizing and being good stewards to taxpayers dollars,” Ferebee said. “Hopefully, that [will] provide much confidence to taxpayers that when they are making investments into IPS, they are strong investments.”

Before going to taxpayers for more money, the district has “exhausted most options for generating revenue,” Ferebee added.

The administration is selling property to shrink the physical footprint of a district where enrollment has declined for decades. The number of students peaked at nearly 109,000 late-1960s. This past academic year, enrollment was 31,000.

During Ferebee’s tenure, officials say Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk its central office spending. But the district continues to face longstanding criticism over the expense of its administrative staff at a time when school budgets are tight.

Ferebee’s administration has been selling underused buildings since late 2015, including the former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Mass. Ave., and at least three former school campuses. Selling those buildings has both cut maintenance costs and generated revenue. By the end of this year, officials expect to have sold 10 properties and raised nearly $21 million.

But the district is also embroiled in a more complicated real estate deal. After closing Broad Ripple High School, the district wants to sell the property. But state law requires that charter schools get first dibs on the building, and two charter high schools recently floated a joint proposal to purchase the building.

The prospect of selling the central office raises a significant challenge: If the building were sold, the district would either need to make a deal for office space at the site or find a new location for its employees who work there. Ferebee said the district is open to moving these staffers, so long as the new location is centrally located, and therefore accessible to families from all around the district.

It will likely be months before the district decides whether or not to sell the property. The process will begin in late July or early August when the district invites developers to submit proposals for the property, but not a financial bid, according to Abbe Hohmann, a commercial real estate consultant who has been helping the district sell property since 2014.

Once the district sees developers’ ideas, leaders will make a decision about whether or not to sell the building. If it decides to move forward, it would proceed with a more formal process of a request for bids, and could make a decision on a bid in early 2019, Hohmann said.

Hohmann did not provide an estimate of how much the central office building could fetch. But when it comes to other sales, the district has “far exceeded our expectations,” she said. “We’ve had a great response from the development community.”

IPS referendum

Ferebee, pleading for more money for schools, says teacher raises, security upgrades are on the ballot

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Nathan Harris, who graduated from Arsenal Technical High School, thinks the schools need more funding to serve students from low-income families.

At a quiet meeting held Wednesday in a near northside church, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee made his case: Indianapolis Public Schools needs more money from local taxpayers.

At stake when voters go to the polls in November: The ability of the state’s largest district to foot the cost of raises for teachers and school security improvements, among other expenditures officials deem necessary. There are two property tax hikes on the ballot this year to increase school funding.

Ferebee told the few dozen people who came to the meeting — parents, alumni, district staffers, among them — that, with adequate funding, he envisioned offering the best teacher pay in the state and attracting some of the most talented educators.

“I think every parent in this room would appreciate that,” he said. “We have to be competitive with teachers’ … compensation.”

The superintendent presented a broad outline of the district’s financial woes, but there was not much new information. He devoted most of the meeting to answering questions from those in attendance, who were alternately supportive and skeptical of the referendums.

Reggie Jones, a member of the Indianapolis NAACP education committee, said that while he supports the ballot initiatives, he also wants to know more about how the money will be spent.

Janisce Hamiter, a district bus attendant, expressed concern that some of the money raised will be used to make improvements at buildings that are occupied by charter schools in the district innovation network.

“Private money is going to be used for charter schools. Public money is going to be used for charter schools,” she said. “They are getting both ends of the stick if you ask me.”

She said she hasn’t yet decided which way she’ll vote.

One of the proposed referendums would raise about $52 million to pay for improvements to school buildings, particularly safety features such as new lights, classroom locks, and fire sprinklers. The board voted earlier this month to add that request to the ballot.

The second measure, which is likely to generate significantly more funds, would pay for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Details of that proposal are expected in the coming weeks. The board will hold a July 17 hearing on the measure.

The community meeting was notable because this is the district’s second time this year campaigning for more money from taxpayers, and the success of the referendums could hinge on whether Ferebee makes a strong case to voters. Last year, the district announced plans to seek nearly $1 billion in two referendums that were to be on the ballot in May. But community groups, notably the MIBOR Realtor Association, balked at the size of the request and criticized the district for not providing enough details.

Eventually, the school board chose to delay the vote and work with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly version. The latest proposal for building improvements comes in at about one-quarter of the district’s initial request.

Nathan Harris, who graduated from Arsenal Technical High School but no longer lives in the district, said he supports increasing school funding because he’s familiar with the needs of Indianapolis schools. When so many students come from low-income families, Harris said, “more resources are required.”