IPS referendum

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.

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.

Janise 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.”

IPS referendum

Indianapolis Public Schools offers buyouts to up to 150 teachers

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Indianapolis Public Schools is offering $20,000 buyouts to teachers who retire.

Indianapolis Public Schools is offering teachers $20,000 payments to retire, in a move that could cut costs amid a severe deficit.

Nearly 250 educators are eligible for the buyout, which would be contributed directly to retirement plans for teachers who take the offer, according to the district.

District officials say the offer is not a cost-cutting move but rather an effort to enhance the district’s ability to set its budget for next year and plan for its hiring needs. In a written response to questions, head of human resources Mindy Schlegel wrote the offer “is not a buyout, but an early notice incentive.”

“The district is focused on incentivizing early notice of planned retirements so we can apply those notices to budgeting and staffing work principals are doing now versus addressing those challenges in June,” she wrote. “Knowing staffing shifts early is one of the most critical levers they can use in planning for next year.”

Teachers have 11 days to make their decision. They must notify the administration by 5 p.m. on April 20 if they want to take the buyout, according to the district. The district apparently could back out of the deal, though — officials have until May 4 to decide whether to go forward with the program.

A minimum of 100 and a maximum of 150 educators would have to accept the offer for the district to go through with it. If 150 teachers accept the $20,000, the payouts could cost the district as much as $3 million. The district could ultimately save money even if it replaces retired teachers, because veteran teachers are paid more.

When asked how much the offer could save the district in the long run, Schlegel said the payments are “not really about cost savings.”

School board member Mary Ann Sullivan said the offer has a number of benefits. It could help the district get a clearer picture of its staff and finances at a time when it is facing a severe budget shortfall. But it could also help the district avoid laying off teachers, she said.

“If you can manage to not do that — avoid that situation — most people would think that’s a good goal,” she said.

To take advantage of the deal, teachers need to be eligible for regular retirement under the rules of the Indiana Public Retirement System. Teachers as young as 55 years old could be eligible if they have at least 30 years of service. Older teachers would be eligible with fewer years of service. Teachers would need to retire at the end of the 2017-18 school year.

The retirement plan administrator, VALIC, will host a session 4:30 to 6 p.m. Thursday in the boardroom of the Education Services Center, according to an email sent to teachers and obtained by Chalkbeat.

“I hate to lose teachers,” said Rhondalyn Cornett, president of the Indianapolis Education Association. But the offer could be desirable for teachers who were trying to decide whether they can afford to retire, she said. “It’s a good opportunity because I do know there are some teachers who are going to want it.”

Some teachers were already considering retirement because they were displaced during the high school closing process, Cornett said.

The incentive for higher-paid teachers to retire comes at the same time as the district is considering ways to cut costs after withdrawing a request for more funding from taxpayers. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has told RTV6 the district might also freeze hiring and furlough administrators. Last week, Schlegel told Chalkbeat the district had not yet decided whether teachers might be laid off.

In her email about retirement incentives, Schlegel wrote she did not anticipate the plan would affect class size. Whether the district replaces teachers will depend on the subjects they teach, she wrote.

The district has been grappling with budget deficits for years, but the issue has become more severe in recent months. District leaders say the budget crunch is caused by declining state and federal funding as well as the high cost of operating expenses such as raises for teachers.

In November, the administration released a plan to appeal to voters to increase property taxes and school funding. But following a rocky rollout and campaign, district leaders first reduced their request and then withdrew the referendum. They are currently working with the Indy Chamber to review finances and craft a request that would appear on the November ballot.