School funding

Washington Township warns teachers will be fired and schools will flood if referenda don’t pass

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergartener at Washington Township's Spring Mill Elementary School works on coloring a life-size Monarch butterfly.

When a spate of late August tornado warnings sent Hoosiers across the city scrambling for cover one Wednesday afternoon, the students and staff at Westlane Middle School in Washington Township were fighting two battles: heed the sirens — and dodge flooded hallways.

Students had been marshalled from their classroom to a safe hallway when tornado sirens started to blare, but the pounding rain outside penetrated the building through leaks in the roof and other vulnerable spots in the building’s exterior, soaking the carpet and forcing the school to swiftly relocate students to another hallway where they could be both safe and dry.

Stacy Lozer was there that day to pick up her son and says the drenched carpet and mild chaos she saw that day are a driving reason why she’s been actively campaigning for a school tax increase that Washington Township voters will consider on Nov. 8.

READ: Find more on this year's races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.
READ: Find more on this year’s races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.

The vote in Washington Township over two measures that would raise taxes to pay for teacher and staff salaries and for major building upgrades and construction may not have the significance of the presidential race at the top of the ballot. But for students in the district, it’s a crucial vote, she said.

“We had to move kids out of flooded hallways during a tornado,” said Lozer, who is one of three coordinators of Washington Township’s political action committee working to educate the public about the referenda. “We’re not looking for the Taj Mahal. We’re looking to re-invest and rebuild.”

The two referenda on the Washington Township ballot — which total about $230 million over seven years — are among 11 ballot initiatives that Indiana school districts are considering in November.

As Indiana’s school funding system has shifted over the past few decades away from local dollars supporting local schools to a more centralized system in which money comes from the state, districts like Washington Township with growing enrollment and aging schools have come to depend on voters to supplement their available funds.

Read: The basics of school funding in Indiana: Difficulty defining fairness

“We’re kind of at that point where we need to be responsible and we need to step up,” Lozer said. “The way school funding has changed, it has really tied the hands of districts to make cost-effective decisions.”

This won’t be the first year Washington Township schools have asked voters to approve a tax hike — but it is the first time they’re asking for significant amounts of money. Between the two tax increases, a family with a home at the district’s median market value and median assessed value — $173,200 and $80,330 respectively — would be looking at paying about $315 more per year in property taxes. That’s a whopping 76 percent increase that would bring the district’s total tax rate on assessed home value to about 90 cents, up from 51 cents.

Families who want to see the impact of the vote on their homes can use a tax calculator provided by the district.

If the measure passes, district says it will upgrade technology, renovate existing schools and build a new elementary school.

For some Washington Township residents, the tax hit is just too high.

“We do need to correct some of the things that are going on in the schools but (the district is) not considering the people who are on fixed incomes,” said Penny Bigelow, who’s lived in the district for 40 years and has been active during district elections.

Bigelow was part of the committee that gave feedback on plans the district put together on what the referenda would support. She thinks the district should definitely update school safety and technology, but building a whole new school is a step too far, particularly because some of the growth the district has seen has been from students coming in from other areas, she said. According to state data from last school year, 793 students transferred into Washington Township from other districts.

“We could save $23 million if we didn’t have to build another elementary school,” Bigelow said. “We only get a set amount (of money per student) from the state, and the rest of the cost of educating that student is borne by Washington Township residents.”

Bigelow said she worries the district isn’t taking proper care of its buildings — and that in six years or so, they’ll ask voters for even more money.

Of 16 referenda proposed by Marion County districts since 2009, when lawmakers put in place caps on how much homeowners could pay in property taxes for public services, just three have failed — one in Perry Township in 2009 and two in Franklin Township in 2009 and 2011, according to the Indiana Secretary of State’s website.

Although the tax caps helped stabilized tax bills for homeowners, they put schools in a tough spot, especially for areas where property taxes still support the majority of projects, like with transportation or construction.

Lozer said the district’s last referendum in 2010 was tax-neutral, so voters saw little to no effect on their taxes. This time it’s significantly more, she admitted, but it’s long past time to make improvements, especially for classrooms.

If the the referenda do not pass, district officials say they will have to cut $4 million from the district’s operating budget. More than 100 teachers, administrators and other staff members would be fired, and programs to support academics would be cut.

“This is a time when our numbers are growing,” Lozer said. “People are moving into the district, they are investing in our neighborhoods, they are investing in our homes, and if this doesn’t pass it’s really going to cause some new reductions that I don’t think anyone wants to see.”

day one

Three new members join IPS board, Sullivan elected president

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Five IPS board members were sworn in. Left to right: Elizabeth Gore, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, Diane Arnold, Venita Moore and Michael O'Connor.

Mary Ann Sullivan will lead the Indianapolis Public School board for the second year in a row, bringing a dose of consistency to a board that begins the term with three new members.

At the first meeting of 2017, the seven-member board swore in three new members, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, Elizabeth Gore and Venita Moore, and two returning members, Diane Arnold and Michael O’Connor. In a clear sign of the growing collaboration between the city — which oversees dozens of charter schools — and the school district, the members were sworn in by Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett.

“The decisions you make here profoundly impact not only the students that attend IPS today but … the future of this great city,” Hogsett said. “As our city strives to always better our schools, your individual rules in that effort are critically important to the long-term health and well-being of this city.”

The new board unanimously elected Sullivan as president, O’Connor as vice-president and Gore as secretary. Sullivan, who was also president in 2016, joined the board two years ago as part of a wave of members who support dramatic changes aimed at improving the lowest performing schools.

“I will do my best to maintain the progress that we are making on so many fronts and to keep our sense of urgency,” Sullivan said. “I am very, very confident that this board is ready to provide the leadership needed to transform lives.”

Two of the new board members won spots following a bruising election fight for control of the board between advocates for radically overhauling the district by embracing policies such as partnerships with charter schools and critics who favor more traditional management. The third new member was chosen by the board to replace LaNier Echols, who resigned following the election.

The three newest board members bring a wide range of experience to the board. Here’s a little about each:

Dorene Rodriguez Hoops is the most mysterious new board member because she was chosen by the board to fill a vacancy, rather than going through the election process. She represents District 5, which covers the northwest section of IPS. Although her positions on many of the biggest issues facing the district are not clearly fleshed out, her personal background gives her a unique perspective on many of the issues facing IPS families. A first-generation Mexican American and fluent Spanish speaker, Hoops is the only Latina board member. She also is the only current parent on the board, with a son enrolled at Center for Inquiry School 27. Her son has special needs, and she said her work advocating for his education renewed her commitment to ensuring educational access.

Elizabeth Gore defeated Sam Odle for an at-large seat representing the entire district. Although she is newly elected, this is not her first time on the board. Gore served a term on the board before losing a reelection bid in 2012, when a wave of critics of former-superintendent Eugene White captured control. In her bid for reelection, Gore was not backed by school-reform supporters or the organized opposition, and her victory was something of a surprise. She is a graduate of Crispus Attucks High School and her three children graduated from Arsenal Technical High School, where she led the parent teacher association.

Venita Moore won a three-way race to replace former board member Gayle Cosby, a frequent critic of the administration. She represents District 2, which covers the northeast section of IPS. A business consultant with experience running a state agency, Moore was endorsed by pro-reform groups including Stand for Children. But she does not have a significant record of political work on education, so her approach to the school board is still something of an unknown. Moore is also an IPS graduate, and her daughter graduated from Crispus Attucks High School.


Who will be advising Indiana’s next state superintendent? Not the charter advocates some expected

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick

Indiana’s next state superintendent Jennifer McCormick today announced the team of 17 educators and policymakers who will help her prepare to take office in early January — and not one of them is a major player in Indiana’s charter school or voucher scene.

That matters because for much of McCormick’s campaign, critics charged that she would be no different from her Republican predecessors who pushed sweeping changes in the state, shifting resources away from traditional district schools toward charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition.

READ: Find more on this year's races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.
READ: Find more on this year’s races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.

McCormick insisted throughout her campaign that she’s not like Tony Bennett, the controversial former Republican superintendent, but those claims were largely dismissed by the state’s staunchest advocates for traditional public schools.

Perhaps until now.

“I am excited and honored to work with such a dynamic and diverse group,” McCormick, said in a statement as she announced her transition team. “The team’s commitment to Hoosier students will drive critical decision-making which will ultimately impact Indiana’s education system and ensure Indiana has one of the best Departments of Education in the nation.”

McCormick’s team includes one Republican lawmaker, several public school administrators, two university professors and a testing expert. Also on the list are community and business leaders as well as educators who work in preschools and with special needs children, among others.

The Institute for Quality Education, a school choice advocacy group that strongly backed McCormick’s campaign, will not have any direct representation on the team.

McCormick’s victory over incumbent Democrat Glenda Ritz was a surprise to many on Election Night. The Yorktown superintendent’s campaign focused on her strengths as an educator and leader following a decades-long career as teacher, principal and administrator.

But she has offered few insights about how she will govern, especially since her policy positions are fairly moderate.

While she’s likely to get along better with Republican lawmakers than Ritz, who spent much of the last four years clashing with the GOP, she’s expressed concerns about some major Republican-led initiatives over the past few years, most notably taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools that divert money from public schools.

The transition team is her first major act as superintendent-elect, offering Hoosiers their first look at her most important priorities.

Notably missing from the list is anyone from Indianapolis Public Schools — a detail that one school advocate called “unfortunate.”

“What Indianapolis has done is a national model, and so not to have that represented on the transition team seems like an omission,” said David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, a pro-charter school Indianapolis-based nonprofit. “IPS right now is also not just at the forefront of the state, but really at the forefront nationally in its work to create innovation network schools, and districts around Indiana would benefit from that perspective.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she had been looking forward to seeing who McCormick would pick to assist her since the two talked last week.

“My first reaction was, ‘Wow, this is a really mixed bag of people,’” Meredith said. “I’m glad that she is being really thoughtful in her selections.”

Here’s the full team:

  • Brad Balch: Professor and Dean Emeritus, Indiana State University, Department of Educational Leadership
  • Todd Bess: Executive Director, Indiana Association of School Principals
  • Wes Bruce: Education and assessment consultant who has spent many years with the Indiana Department of Education
  • Jeff Butts: President-Elect, Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, current superintendent of Wayne Township.
  • Rep. Tony Cook: State Representative, Indiana House of Representatives – District 32, vice chairman of the House Education Committee
  • Denny Costerison: Executive Director, Indiana Association of School Business Officials
  • Scot Croner: Superintendent, Blackford County Schools
  • Steve Edwards (Transition Team Chair): Retired Superintendent and Education Consultant, Administrator Assistance
  • Nancy Holsapple: Executive Director, Old National Trail Special Services Inter-Local
  • David Holt: Chief Financial Officer, MSD Warren Township
  • Lee Ann Kwiatkowski: Member, State Board of Education, assistant superintendent of Warren Township
  • Micah Maxwell: Executive Director, Boys & Girls Club of Muncie
  • Hardy Murphy: Executive Director, Indiana Urban Schools Association and Clinical Professor of Education, IUPUI, IU School of Education
  • Kathryn Raasch: Principal, Wayne Township Preschool
  • Terry Spradlin: Director of Community and Governmental Relations, Education Networks of America
  • Lisa Tanselle: General Counsel, Indiana School Boards Association
  • Kelly Wittman: Executive Principal, Max S. Hayes Career & Technical High School, a public school in Cleveland, Ohio.