Indianapolis Public Schools taps savings to pay for big changes

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For the second year in a row, Indianapolis Public Schools expects to pay next year’s bills by dipping into savings.

With a recent drop in state aid and expensive start-up costs for new programs that will decentralize administration, the district’s budget for next year shows that administrators plan to spend more than they expect to take in, but district leaders say the deficit spending will pay off in the long run.

Weston Young, the district’s chief financial manager said it makes sense for the district to use reserves to launch programs such as the autonomy pilot and innovation network schools. District leaders expect those initiatives to increase district enrollment, which is tied to state aid. The spending also will help improve efficiency with steps such as automating payroll, he said.

“This is a year of investment,” Young said.

The state’s largest school district is running a deficit of more than $12.6 million this year, and it projects a $5.5 million deficit next year, according to a budget estimate presented to the school board by Young. For now, the district can afford to rely on savings because it has about $63 million in cash reserves — funds it typically rolls over from one year to the next. But with each year of deficit spending, it digs a bit deeper into that stockpile.

Depending on how the district is spending funds, it could make sense to run a deficit, said Michael Huber, CEO of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.

“The key is, if enrollments are declining in a given window of time, are they also making tough financial decisions to keep pace?” Huber said.

Just two years ago, IPS was in an apparent financial crisis, facing a purported $30 million budget deficit and the prospect of dramatic cuts. When Superintendent Ferebee took over leadership, however, a new accounting revealed that the district actually had a surplus. It’s been on relatively solid financial footing since, although it has seen state support decrease due to funding cuts and enrollment declines.

About $5 million of next year’s budget will go toward an investment fund designed to help the district implement its strategic plans, including launching autonomy and innovation network schools. But the district also has mounting costs in other areas. Recent teacher raises included in the latest contract, for example, will cost about $4.3 million this year, and the district is paying the entire cost out of reserves.

The district, which educates nearly 10,000 fewer students than it did a decade ago, is supplementing its budget by selling off underused buildings, including schools and other facilities. It expects to make about $6 million off property sales next year.

Selling off property may seem like an option of last resort for the district, but there may be strategic benefits even if IPS doesn’t need the cash immediately, said Mark Fisher, who handles government relations and policy for the Chamber.

During the IPS budget crisis, the Chamber produced an analysis of district spending that made several recommendations, including calling for it to sell or repurpose underused school property.

“Sometimes they just don’t need that amount of space anymore,” Fisher said. “The space is inefficient.”

The budget challenges are exacerbated by cuts in state funding. Last year, Indiana lawmakers shifted money away from high-poverty urban districts to growing, suburban school districts with higher-income students. Between last year and this, the state cut the district’s aid by about $200 per student, according to calculations from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Funding for IPS will increase again next year, but the district is still expected to lose out on close to $17 million in state aid over two years if statehouse enrollment projections prove accurate. But Ferebee is betting that lawmakers will reverse course by increasing funding.

“At some point the state … has to invest more in public education,” Ferebee said. “There’s no way that I think our legislators would expect us to continue to operate public education at the same level of funding.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”