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

Indianapolis Public Schools scales back referendum (again) to win chamber support

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

To strike a bargain with a politically powerful ally, Indianapolis Public Schools leaders voted to shrink — again — the district’s multimillion-dollar funding request to taxpayers.

The new request amounts to $220 million over eight years. And this time, the proposal will be supported by the business group, which could play a pivotal role in helping the district win over voters.

The new request comes after a week of intense negotiations between the district and the chamber, which threatened to oppose the district’s operating referendum. Chamber officials had presented a plan that asked taxpayers for $100 million along with massive cuts that they said would make Indianapolis Public Schools operate more efficiently. The district then countered that $315 million was the bare minimum needed to serve students.

The school board voted 5-0 in favor of the reduced request at its meeting Tuesday night. Board members Mary Ann Sullivan, Venita Moore, Michael O’Connor, Elizabeth Gore, and Diane Arnold supported the measure. Board members Dorene Rodriguez Hoops and Kelly Bentley were absent. The plan will appear on the November ballot with an additional tax measure to raise $52 million for building improvements.

District leaders have been collaborating with the chamber for more than four months to craft a slimmed down request after their first proposal garnered little community support. The agreement approved Tuesday represents a compromise between the chamber’s plan and the district’s request.

The reduced request was clearly a bitter pill for many of the school board members to swallow.

Moore said that the students in Indianapolis Public Schools deserve better than the district has been able to provide. The chamber has promised that if the funds are not enough to ensure a high-quality education, the business group will work with the district to pursue another referendum, she said.

Children of color represent more than 70 percent of the school district, said Moore, who is black. “We deserve a quality education,” she said. “Our children do not deserve substandard education, books, instruments, or tools.”

In a prepared statement, Sullivan raised several concerns about the impact on the district of the smaller proposal, which she said was based on assumptions that are “unrealistic, politically naive, and potentially damaging to our community.”

Sullivan said the cuts proposed in the chamber’s report would never be accepted in suburban communities with affluent families like Carmel, Zionsville, and Brownsburg.

“IPS cannot intentionally build or allow ourselves to be satisfied running a system of second- or third-class public schools simply because we primarily serve low-income families and students of color,” she said.

The $220 million request that the groups settled on includes a raise in pay for teachers, but the district is not committing to a specific increase. There will also be about $95 million in cuts, including $31 million in transportation, $47 million in facilities, and $17 million in food service, according to the district.

For now, budgets for individual schools will be “business as usual,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. But, ultimately, the district may need to close more than a dozen schools as part of the plan, he said.

“It will be a complex process,” Ferebee said. Before the district makes decisions on what schools to close, he added, the board members will have to “consider the impact on neighborhoods, the impact on education outcomes.”

The plan will result in a slower process for school closings, a longer phase-in of transportation changes, and a slower pace for reducing the number of teachers compared to the chamber’s initial proposal, according to the business group.

Indy Chamber CEO Michael Huber said the district must work through “thorny issues” going forward. But he was optimistic about the plan.

“We feel strongly that where we’ve landed really balances the impacts of where you are trying to take the district, and the positive changes you are making, and also the impact with quality of life on our city,” he told the board.

The chamber has not yet determined whether to actively campaign for the referendum, but the group will vocally back the tax measure, said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the Indy Chamber.

“We are going to be offering our full-throated support — our full support for the referendum,” he said. “Hopefully we will be able to build a broader community consensus on the increased funding for IPS.”

The agreement entwines the district with the chamber for the long haul. The business group will help raise private funds for two staff members who would be dedicated to pushing for sweeping changes that the chamber recommended in its report earlier this month, Fisher said.

“Making sure that they are implementing at an appropriate level and speed is going to be key,” said Fisher.

The new plan is less than a third of the size of the initial proposal that the district made seven months ago, which would have raised $736 million over eight years for operating expenses. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said last week that the district may need to return to voters for more money if the first request does not raise enough.

But while district officials clearly support a larger request, there has been significant pressure for them to come to an agreement with the chamber.

This story has been updated.

IPS referendum

To bring down potential tax hikes, chamber proposes slashing Indianapolis Public Schools budget

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students walk through the halls at the Career Technology Center at Arsenal Technical High School.

In a political showdown, one of the most vocal supporters of Indianapolis Public Schools is pressuring the district’s administration to make aggressive budget cuts and significantly reduce its request for more taxpayer money.

The Indy Chamber unveiled a plan Wednesday proposing nearly $500 million in sweeping cuts to Indianapolis Public Schools over eight years. And the chamber drew a line for its support of requesting more money from taxpayers: Chamber officials say they believe the district should only ask for $152 million in additional funding through tax increases, a significant reduction from what started as a nearly $1 billion request.

The district is set to decide next week how much it will seek from taxpayers in November.

Philanthropist and influential business leader Al Hubbard, who played a significant role in the analysis, gave an unvarnished pitch for the district to embrace the chamber’s recommendation during a press conference.

“Our hope is that they are going to embrace this proposal,” Hubbard said. “If they propose a referendum that’s higher than this, we will have to oppose them.”

But the district pushed back. In a statement, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the district will continue to work with the chamber as officials work toward a referendum amount. But he raised concerns about the cost-cutting measures recommended, particularly what he described as closing a “devastating” number of schools.

“IPS is committed to further action to reduce unnecessary expenditures,” Ferebee said. “We believe, however, that a responsible referendum request cannot be anchored solely in revenue from cost savings that to this point are on paper only.”

The report came on the heels of months of work between the district and the chamber after the school board agreed to delay a plan to ask voters for more money in May. In exchange for the delay, the chamber committed to analyze Indianapolis Public Schools’ finances, help draft a new request — and, importantly, lend its political support to a tax increase.

The proposal now puts school officials in a bind: If they adopt the chamber’s plan, or something similar, they will need to dramatically overhaul district spending in the coming years. Alternatively, if they reject the austerity measures, they could lose the chamber’s support and struggle to persuade voters that more funding is essential.

The largest savings in the chamber’s plan, expected to save $477 million over eight years, would come from:

  • Reducing the number of teachers through attrition ($126 million).
  • Eliminating busing for high school students and relying on public transit ($121 million).
  • Reducing unused space more than likely by closing schools ($100 million).
  • Cutting the central office staff by 50 percent ($33 million).
  • Reducing the number of custodians ($19 million).

Another $62 million would come from “operating efficiencies,” a bucket that includes wide-ranging suggestions such as cutting classroom assistants, contracting out nursing, expanding health savings accounts for employees, and switching to an internet phone system.

Ahmed Young, the chief of staff for the district, said Indianapolis Public Schools has significantly cut spending on its central office and sold underused properties in recent years. He said the district would continue to work with the chamber to come to an agreement in the coming days.

“There are elements that we disagree on obviously, and we are going to continue to lift up our hood and make sure our engine is running properly,” he said.

The plan also includes two potentially controversial real estate deals. It calls for leasing the Broad Ripple High School building to Purdue Polytechnic High School and Indianapolis Classical Schools, which runs Herron High School. That proposal has ignited controversy in recent weeks, as local political leaders have put increasing pressure on the district to accept an offer for the building, while Indianapolis Public Schools officials have said they plan to have an open process to gauge interest. The chamber is also calling for the district to look into selling its central office building, which officials are already considering.

The chamber contends that the cuts it recommends could balance the district’s budget — which is projected to have a deficit of about $45 million next school year. But the chamber is also proposing $243 million in extra spending on teacher and principal pay to reduce turnover and make Indianapolis Public Schools more competitive with nearby districts.

Indianapolis Public Schools spends the most per student of any comparable district, according to chamber data from 2016-17. But its teacher pay is relatively low compared to other districts, especially for mid- and late-career teachers. In part, that’s because the district only spends about 47 percent of its budget in classrooms, according to the chamber.

Under the chamber’s plan, teacher pay would go up by 16 percent and principal pay would rise to $150,000 per year by 2020-21. After that, all IPS employees would receive 2 percent raises each year.

To fund those raises, the chamber is proposing increasing local funding by $100 million for operating expenses, such as teacher pay, over eight years by asking voters to approve a tax increase. The plan also includes a second tax measure to raise $52 million for building improvements, primarily focused on safety, that was announced by the district in June.

That’s a significant decrease from the district’s original proposal for referendums. Indianapolis Public Schools officials announced last year that they would seek nearly $1 billion more over eight years from local taxpayers in May. After that plan failed to gain support from community leaders, the district first reduced its request and then delayed the vote until November.

The chamber acknowledged that the cuts it is recommending would be painful.

“What we are asking them to do is tough. Closing schools is very difficult. Reducing the number of employees is very difficult,” said Hubbard. “At the same time, we think it’s unfair to the taxpayer to pay for empty seats or to pay for unnecessary staff.”

School board president Michael O’Connor said the district has had a longstanding partnership with the Indy Chamber, and he expects them to come to an agreement in the coming days.

“If we keep that perspective, that we’ve been partners on a lot of very difficult things, in the forefront, and we keep talking between now and Tuesday afternoon at 5:45 p.m., I think we will probably find some common ground,” he said.

The chamber’s report echoes a similar finding in 2014, when the district was projected to run a budget deficit. The chamber made similar recommendations, including selling the district’s headquarters and relying more on public transportation. The administration eventually implemented some of those suggestions, but concerns about the deficit dissipated when it was revealed to be an accounting error.

The current Indianapolis Public Schools administration is often lauded by the business community, and the chamber, for steps it has taken to transform the district in recent years, including the push for more school choices and the closure of some underused high schools. Indy Chamber CEO Michael Huber echoed that support Wednesday, describing Ferebee as “one of the best superintendents in the country.”

“We very much believe in Dr. Ferebee’s abilities to implement these solutions,” Huber said. “We wouldn’t be wasting our time throwing out hypotheticals or theoretical solutions.”

The plan was crafted by consultants from Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting and Policy Analytics, LLC, who had access to reams of information and prior reports from Indianapolis Public Schools.

This story has been updated.