School Finance

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.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana lawmakers OK up to $100 million to address funding shortage for schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indiana lawmakers agreed to dip into reserves to make up a shortfall to get public schools the money they were promised — and they’re trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to approve the final plan in House Bill 1001. The bill now heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk.

Rep. Tim Brown, a co-author of the bill and chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said it was necessary to take the uncommon step and have the state to use reserve funds to make up the gap, but in the next budget year making up that difference will be a priority. Brown said he, other lawmakers, and the Legislative Services Agency will work to make sure projections are more accurate going forward.

“Do procedures need to be changed?” Brown said. “We’re going to be asking those questions” during the next budget cycle.

Estimates on the size of the shortfall have ranged widely this year, beginning around $9 million and growing as new information and student counts came in. Projections from the Legislative Services Agency reported by the Indianapolis Star had the gap at $22 million this year and almost $60 million next year.

The final bill requires the state to transfer money from reserves if public school enrollment is higher than expected, as well as to make up any shortages for students with disabilities or students pursuing career and technical education. The state budget director would have to sign off first. Transfers from reserves are already allowed if more voucher students enroll in private schools than projected, or if state revenue is less than expected.

The budget shortfall, discovered late last year, resulted from miscalculations in how many students were expected to attend public schools over the next two years. Lawmakers proposed two bills to address the shortfall, and the House made it its highest legislative priority. The compromise bill would set aside up to $25 million for this year and up to $75 million next year. The money would be transferred from reserve funds to the state general fund and then distributed to districts.

The bill also takes into account two other programs that lawmakers think could be contributing to underestimated public school enrollment: virtual education programs and kids who repeat kindergarten.

District-based virtual education programs would be required to report to the state by October of each year on virtual program enrollment, total district enrollment, what grades the virtual students are in, where they live, and how much of their day is spent in a virtual learning program. These programs, unlike virtual charter schools, are not separate schools, so it can be hard for state officials and the public to know they even exist.

The report will help lawmakers understand how the programs are growing and how much they might cost, but it won’t include information about whether students in the programs are learning or graduating. Virtual charter schools in the state have typically posted poor academic results, and Holcomb has called for more information and action, though legislative efforts have failed.

Finally, the bill changes how kindergarteners are counted for state funding. The state changed the cut-off age for kindergarten to 5 years old by Aug. 1 — if students are younger than that, they can still enroll, but the district won’t receive state dollars for them. Some districts were allowing 4-year-olds to enroll in kindergarten early, Sen. Ryan Mishler said earlier this month. Then those same students would enroll in kindergarten again the next year.

Despite increases passed last year to boost the total education budget, many school leaders have said they struggle to pay salaries and maintain buildings, which is why funding shortfalls — even small ones — matter. This year’s unexpected shortfall was particularly problematic because districts had already made plans based on the state budget.

Find all of Chalkbeat’s 2018 legislative coverage here.

let the games begin

Assembly pushes for $1.5 billion boost to education spending

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

In a tight budget year, New York State’s Democratic-led Assembly wants to increase education spending by $1.5 billion, officials announced late Monday night.

The proposed increase  which would bring total education spending to $27.1 billion  is significantly more than the governor’s suggested $769 million increase. Still, the amount is a slightly smaller boost than the Assembly backed last year, which is likely a reflection of a difficult fiscal situation faced by the state this year.

State officials are fighting against a budget deficit, a federal tax plan that could harm New York, and the threat of further federal cuts. The potential lack of funding could be the only sticking point in an otherwise quiet budget year for education matters.

As part of its education agenda, the Assembly backed a number of programs it has in the past. The plan supports the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which is designed to help boys and young men of color reach their potential, and “community schools,” which act as service hubs that provide healthcare and afterschool programs.

The release of this plan kicks off the final stretch of the state’s budget process. The governor has already outlined his proposals and the Senate will likely follow soon, setting up the state’s annual last-minute haggling.

The budget is due by April 1, but could always be resolved later similar to last year.