Election 2018: In a sweeping victory for IPS, voters approve tax hikes to raise $272 million for schools

Voters overwhelmingly opted Tuesday to raise property taxes — a move that will boost funding for Indianapolis Public Schools by up to $272 million. The decision is a lifeline for the cash-strapped district.

Yes votes on two tax referendums marked the conclusion of a rocky year-long campaign. The results mean the state’s largest district will get an influx of cash to help pay for teacher salaries and building improvements.

The extra funding will be key to shaping the future of the district, which is running a significant budget deficit. Leaders have said the referendum funds are essential to keeping pay competitive with nearby districts. Even with the new money, the district is expected to make substantial cuts to its budget, including potentially closing underutilized schools. IPS currently serves about 30,000 students and employs about 3,600 educators and support staff.

As of 9:40 p.m., with 540 out of 600 precincts counted, 71 percent of voters are supporting the referendum to raise $220 million over eight years for the district’s operating expenses, including teacher pay. Over 75 percent of voters are supporting a second measure to raise $52 million for improvements to school buildings. That money will primarily fund safety upgrades, such as exterior lighting, fire sprinklers, and secure entrances.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said Tuesday evening he was “excited and extremely grateful that voters decided to make this investment in the young people of Indianapolis Public Schools.”

“This is a clear win for our children,” he added. “I think it positions us well to continue to be competitive with teacher compensation.”

Read: IPS critics poised to defeat incumbents in school board shakeup

Read: Track the IPS board races and referendums

The vote follows a sustained effort to win local voters’ support. The district first announced plans to seek a funding boost of almost $1 billion nearly a year ago. But when little support materialized and some community leaders balked at the high price tag, the district delayed the vote and then reduced the request. Indianapolis Public Schools then partnered with the local chamber of commerce to craft a lower, more politically palatable request. The two measures on the ballot had backing from a wide range of community groups, and no organized opposition emerged.

“We won as a community,” said IPS board president Michael O’Connor. “It was a true compromise…. We created a situation where our kids are going to win.”

Chelsea Koehring, a proponent of the measure and a parent of two children in Indianapolis Public Schools, said she was “thrilled” by the results.

She said that while the new funding is “not nearly enough,” she’s hoping that “just giving teachers the small raises that we can give them is going to be enough to encourage them to stick it out a little bit longer.”

More than 45,000 voters have weighed in on the referendums in the tallies so far. Votes from the remaining 60 precincts, in addition to about 50,000 absentee ballots, were expected to be counted Wednesday morning.

At the Indianapolis Public Schools’ administration building, which served as a polling location for downtown dwellers, signs outside urged voters to “Vote Yes for IPS,” in support of the district’s two referendums. Campaign workers manned the doors to pass out flyers, asking if voters had made up their minds yet about school board candidates.

Some voters said they weren’t very familiar with the district’s requests for tax increases, but they supported the extra funding for the school system.

“It wasn’t a crazy amount, what they’re asking for, if they’re going to use it for something worthwhile — for education,” said José Casanovas. “If they’re not going to waste it, then sure.”

Across town at School 42, Kimberly Mooney, who has two children at Herron High School, said that she voted for the referendums in part because she thinks more funding will help the low-performing district improve.

“They do have some good teachers,” she said, “but I think if you want to keep those teachers that we have, and maybe even get more teachers in, they need to fund the schools.”

Nina Gant, who voted at the recently shuttered John Marshall school building, said she hopes the infusion of capital will help schools make improvements to dilapidated buildings and hire better teachers. “We want them to do better,” she said.

In a statement Monday, Indianapolis Urban League President Tony Mason said the final proposal protected both taxpayers and the academic needs of schools.

“The $220 million proposal does not address all of the fiscal issues that IPS is facing, but it does help the district compete better with the townships for the best educators — we need strong principals to lead high-performing schools, and great teachers to inspire and educate our children,” Mason said. “And the cost to the average homeowner is less than $5 a month, with every dollar benefiting our students.”

But some community members said they were reluctant to support the measures because they were concerned about the financial transparency of Ferebee’s administration. The district’s growing partnerships with charter schools and the closure of three high schools have helped spur a growing movement against the administration.

Former IPS board member Gayle Cosby, a frequent skeptic of the administration, wrote on her blog last month that she would not support the referendums because she believes the money would be misused.

“Under Dr. Ferebee’s leadership, IPS has become a willing partner in its own demise — the privatization of the district through the portfolio school model that is now being deployed,” she wrote, referring to a strategy that involves districts partnering with charter schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools last sought a tax increase in 2008, which ultimately passed, for building improvements such as installing air conditioning in schools. Indiana districts have pursued more than 175 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 63 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Rhondalyn Cornett, the president of the district teachers union, said the results show voters support the district and value good teachers.

“They are trusting that IPS is going to do what’s right,” she said. “They see we need help.”