School funding

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

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

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.”

Indiana 2016 Election

The biggest donation in the IPS school board race came from an unexpected source

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In the battle for control of the Indianapolis Public School board, the largest single campaign contribution came from an unexpected source: the teachers’ union. But the donation didn’t help the union-backed candidate.

In recent years, IPS board races have been dominated by pro-school reform candidates who have attracted large contributions from deep-pocketed donors. But in other elections — at other times, in other places — it’s common for teachers’ unions to spend big.

That’s what happened this time in Indianapolis.

Critics of the current administration made their first organized bid to unseat incumbent board members in 2016 when they formed the group OurIPS. The group didn’t donate to candidates, but the district-wide candidate the group supported, Jim Grim, did win a $15,000 contribution from the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Despite that cash, all four candidates backed by OurIPS lost on Election Day.

The contribution to Grim’s campaign was revealed in final campaign finance reports due to the Marion County Election Board last week. The disclosures detail fundraising and spending for each school board campaign, but they don’t include groups such as Stand for Children, which sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses but is not required to disclose all of its political activity.

Although the union donation was easily the largest single contribution any candidate received, other candidates did raise more in total. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce spent more overall but gave to four candidates.

Here are the totals for each race:

At-large

Grim raised $20,930 during the election. His opponents were incumbent Sam Odle, who raised $31,893, and challenger Elizabeth Gore, who won a surprise victory in the raise. Gore has not filed a finance report, but she told Chalkbeat after the election that she raised about $1,200.

District 1

Incumbent Michael O’Connor vastly out fundraised his opponent in the race, raising $23,543, according to his disclosure. Challenger Christine Prince raised $100.

District 2

Venita Moore, a newcomer who won the seat with support from Stand for Children, raised $25,712. Ramon Batts, who had the support of OurIPS, raised $3,550. Nanci Lacy did not file a report.

District 4

Long-time board member Diane Arnold raised $16,696. Challenger Larry Vaughn did not file a report.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect a new fundraising total for Michael O’Connor, who submitted a corrected disclosure.

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.