School Finance

Indianapolis Public Schools may ask taxpayers for more money. A three-year deficit and raises for teachers are driving the decision.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Indianapolis Public Schools leaders may ask the public for more funding.

With Indianapolis Public Schools slowly burning through its savings, district leaders may soon ask taxpayers for more money.

For the third year in a row, the district expects to operate at a deficit, following years of declines in state funding and growing spending on teacher pay. Now, to balance the budget, some district leaders say IPS may need to ask taxpayers for more money through a referendum.

It will be more than a year before the district can put a referendum to increase property taxes on the ballot, said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. But with state funding stagnant or declining, Ferebee said that he believes the district will “absolutely” need to have a referendum for more funding to pay teachers at the current rate and potentially increase pay in the future.

In recent years Indiana schools have become largely reliant on state funding for operating expenses, with local money primarily paying for transportation and facilities. But districts with pinched budgets often appeal directly to residents to increase property taxes and send more money to schools. Of the 11 school districts in Marion County, eight have asked taxpayers for more funding to pay operating expenses such as teacher salaries and six were successful. The most recent district to make an appeal was Washington Township, which passed a referendum last fall.

Next year, IPS expects to spend about $22 million more on operating expenses then it receives in state, local and federal dollars. The district can make up for that gap in the short-term because it has about $57 million in savings, and it is adding millions of dollars to its coffers each year from the sale of unused buildings. But neither strategy is sustainable in the long term.

“We know we have deficits,” said Weston Young, the district’s chief financial manager. “Ultimately, much like a lot of the other local districts and state districts, an operating referendum is very much a consideration for our district.”

Before district leaders appeal to voters for more cash, however, they are aiming to cut some of the costs that are weighing down the shrinking district — which has lost thousands of students over the last decade. The biggest drain are the district’s underused schools. The district has nearly three times as many seats as there are high school students to fill them, which dramatically pushes up costs at some schools.

(Read: Empty hallways, higher costs force Indianapolis Public Schools to consider closing high schools)

Last summer, IPS leaders announced plans to close some of the district’s high schools. Ferebee said last week that the district could close schools by 2018-2019.

Board member Kelly Bentley said that closing some high schools is one way that the district can show taxpayers that it is managing its finances responsibly — and win more support for a referendum.

“I think the district has been and continues to be really good stewards of the money that we have,” she said. “We need to continue to do that so that the taxpayers feel comfortable that we are doing what we can with what we have, and there really is no other alternative.”

IPS leaders are also looking to prove their fiscal responsibility in other ways: Since Ferebee took the helm three years ago, the district has touted a focus on making sure funding goes directly to schools. Last year, consultants for the district found that spending on management and leadership had fallen to $684 per student in 2015-2016 from $876 in 2012-2013.

But IPS leadership has also spent big on some areas. The district has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay outside consultants to help plan a new approach to school budgeting. And last fall, the district approved the first teacher raise in years, which increased the minimum salary for teachers to $40,000 — at a price tag of about $1.7 million per year, according to an IPS spokesperson.

If the district wants to raise teacher and principal salaries again, the district will need to have a referendum, Bentley said.

“With concentrated poverty like we have in IPS, I just think it’s a huge challenge for principals and teachers,” she said. “We just need to be able to pay them competitively. I just hope that the public will see that.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

State takeover plans for Gary and Muncie could be revived as Indiana lawmakers return in May

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Gov. Eric Holcomb addressed reporters Monday. He's asking lawmakers to return for a special session in May.

Lawmakers will return to the Statehouse this May after an unusual summons Monday from Gov. Eric Holcomb, and it’s possible they could revisit a controversial plan to expand state takeover of the Gary and Muncie school districts.

But Holcomb said the takeover plan should not be pushed through during a special session and should be acted upon next year. It’s been more than a decade since lawmakers held a special session in a non-budget year.

“I would prefer to wait,” Holcomb said. “I don’t believe that it rises to the level of urgency to be dealt with right now.”

The regular legislative session ended in chaos last week, with lawmakers leaving this and several other important bills unresolved when the clock ran out.

Republican lawmakers have been largely supportive of the takeover plan, and so they could revive the issue despite Holcomb’s stance. Holcomb said discussions would happen this week over what issues could be addressed during the special session.

House Bill 1315 sparked heated debate right up until the final minutes of the 2018 legislative session. The bill would have given control of Muncie schools to Ball State University and stripped power from the Gary school board. Another part of the bill would have developed an early warning system to identify districts in financial trouble.

On Thursday, House Speaker Brian Bosma said the bill was one of the important issues left on the table when the legislature had to adjourn.

But Senate President David Long also noted that the bill has been massively unpopular in some circles — Democrats were strongly opposed to it, as were teachers unions and some educators and community members.

Both Republican leaders said in statements Monday that they supported the governor’s special session request. But John Zody, the Indiana Democratic Party chairman, derided the move as wasteful and a reflection of lawmakers’ inability to finish their work on time.

“Republican leadership incompetently steered session into a wall on the last lap,” Zody said in a statement. “Now they’re asking taxpayers to foot the bill for another shot at passing their do-nothing agenda.”

Holcomb said his biggest priorities during the special session would be getting a $12 million loan from the state’s Common School Fund to Muncie schools to deal with financial difficulties stemming from declining enrollment and mismanagement of a bond issue. That loan was originally a provision in the House bill.

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said Monday morning that she also would support action to get Muncie schools the money they were promised. McCormick also said the early warning system could be helpful to prevent these situations in the future.

“We want Muncie to be successful,” McCormick said, adding that anything the state can do to be proactive “and get people help so we’re not dealing with more Muncies and Garys” is a good thing.

The special session could come with a steep price tag for Indiana taxpayers. Micah Vincent, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said early estimates for calling lawmakers back into session could be about $30,000 per day. But that cost “is dwarfed by the cost of inaction,” Holcomb said. It’s unclear how long the special session could last.

The governor also said he wanted to prioritize school safety legislation, another measure that didn’t get final votes before time ran out. He is calling for lawmakers to direct $10 million over the next two years to the state’s Secured School Fund. The money would allow districts to request dollars for new and improved school safety equipment and building improvements.

His plan comes in the wake of a shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and faculty members were killed last month.

The shooting also sparked activism across the country, with thousands of students protesting against gun violence in schools and calling for stricter gun regulations. Last Wednesday, many Hoosier students joined the national movement by walking out of school.

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.