School Finance

Indiana superintendents praise funding hike but worry about poor schools

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown, Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and Northwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Chris Himsel participated in a January forum on school funding organized by Chalkbeat.

Indiana superintendents have a message for state budget-makers: All schools need more funding, but it can’t come at the expense of the state’s poorest districts.

The Indiana Senate’s school funding subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, today heard testimony on proposed changes to school funding, including comments from 11 superintendents who testified on the Indiana House’s proposed budget. The budget, House Bill 1001, would give K-12 schools statewide a 4.7 percent increase through 2017. Overall, state dollars for public schools will increase by $469 million to a record high of $6.9 billion.

That record increase would be accompanied by major changes, however. The plan includes adding more money to the basic tuition amount for each student, which benefits all schools in the state. But extra money earmarked to help poor students who often start school academically behind their peers, has been changed.

Going forward, just students from families that are poor enough to qualify for free lunch will be counted in for extra state aid. In the past, the poverty aid has also been calculated to provide extra money for students who are slightly less poor but still qualify for special assistance, such as free textbooks or reduced-price lunch. For districts like Indianapolis Public Schools, where a large majority of students come from families who are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, this could mean huge losses in state aid.

“We believe these reductions are too volatile, the pace of change is too fast, for any corporation to either gain or lose a significant amount of funding over a short period of time,” Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said.

To qualify for the lunch program this year, children from a family of four must have annual income of less than $43,500. Last year, about 78 percent of IPS students came from families that were poor enough to qualify for free lunch, but that number is expected to drop to about 71 percent this year. Ferebee said that shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that IPS has fewer students in poverty — rather, families are not as readily applying for the free lunch program. This year IPS got a federal grant money that provides free lunch to all students regardless of income, reducing urgency for families to fill out paperwork. Their kids will get free lunch whether they officially enroll or not.

Kathy Friend, the chief financial officer of Fort Wayne schools who spoke on behalf of the Indiana Urban Schools Association, said all schools will see some reduction in dollars to support poor children, but that the state’s poorest districts will be hit the hardest. As a result, more basic state aid dollars intended to support all children will need to be channeled toward poor kids to make up for the lost poverty aid in districts with more poor children.

Much of this year’s legislative debate around school funding has centered on the disparity between the state’s lowest-funded districts, often those with higher state test scores, and the highest-funded districts, which tend to be high poverty districts that also tend to have more students with special needs and those learning English as a second language.

Chris Himsel, superintendent in Northwest Allen County Schools in suburban Fort Wayne and an advocate for increased aid for suburban districts, said the trade-off between increased basic state aid for all students while also giving less extra money for poor students is unacceptable. His district comes out slightly ahead based on the proposed changes to the funding formula, but that still isn’t enough, he said. Northwest Allen shouldn’t gain if it means others must lose, he said.

“All of our kids throughout our state need more funding,” Himsel said. “To do the things that we are being asked to do with what we currently receive is not enough … I am interested in helping our kids. I am not interested in destroying other kids to do it.”

Superintendents from districts as diverse as East Chicago, Batesville, Greene County, Elkhart and Zionsville said they simply can’t make ends meet, even with the proposed increase in basic state aid. The state needs to do more, they said, whether that means even more basic state aid for all schools, reducing poverty aid more slowly over time or sticking with the current method for calculating poverty aid.

East Chicago superintendent Youssef Yomtoob implored lawmakers to at least slow the reduction in poverty aid so it won’t hit as hard right away.

“Grandfather us in,” Yomtoob said. “I don’t want more money, but do not take $4 million. That’s over 20 percent of my budget. I can’t live like that.”

Superintendents from districts where enrollment is growing, such as Hamilton Southeastern and Carmel, were generally more supportive of the proposed budget, which tends to be favorable to districts taking in more students. Allen Bourff, superintendent at Hamilton Southeastern, said he understands there are many concerns for urban schools, but the problems his district is facing are valid, too.

“I applaud the work of the House members to craft a bill that would address some of the issues that we have faced in Hamilton Southeastern over the years,” Bourff said.

The budget will again go before the Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, on April 9.

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.



School Finance

Key lawmakers urge IPS to lease Broad Ripple high school to charter school

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Several Indiana lawmakers, including two influential state representatives, are calling on Indianapolis Public Schools leaders to sell the Broad Ripple High School campus to Purdue Polytechnic High School.

In a letter to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and the Indianapolis Public Schools Board sent Tuesday, nine lawmakers urged the district to quickly accept a verbal offer from Purdue Polytechnic to lease the building for up to $8 million.

The letter is the latest volley in a sustained campaign from Broad Ripple residents and local leaders to pressure the district to lease or sell the desirable building to a charter school. The district is instead considering steps that could eventually allow them sell the large property on the open market.

But lawmakers said the offer from Purdue Polytechnic is more lucrative and indicated they wouldn’t support allowing the district to sell the property to other buyers.

The letter from lawmakers described selling the property to Purdue Polytechnic as a “unique opportunity to capitalize on an immediate revenue opportunity while adhering to the letter and spirit of state law.”

It’s an important development because it was signed by House Speaker Brian Bosma and chairman of the House Education Committee Bob Behning, two elected officials whose support would be essential to changing a law that requires the district to first offer the building to charter schools for $1. Both are Republicans from Indianapolis.

Last year, the district lobbied for the law to be modified, and Behning initially included language in a bill to do so. When charter schools, including Purdue Polytechnic, expressed interest in the building, he withdrew the proposal.

The district announced last month that it planned to use the Broad Ripple building for operations over the next year, which will allow it to avoid placing the building on the unused property registry that would eventually make it available to charter operators.

The plan to continue using the building inspired pointed criticism from lawmakers, who described the move in the letter as an excuse not to lease the property to a charter school. Lawmakers hinted that the plan will not help win support for changing the law.

“It certainly would not be a good faith start to any effort to persuade the General Assembly to reconsider the charter facility law,” the letter said.

The legislature goes back in session in January.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board said in the statement that they appreciate the interest from lawmakers in the future of the building.

“We believe our constituents would not want us to circumvent a public process and bypass due diligence,” the statement continued. “We will continue to move with urgency recognizing our commitment to maximize resources for student needs and minimize burdens on taxpayers.”

Indianapolis Public Schools is currently gathering community perspectives on reusing the property and analyzing the market. The district is also planning an open process for soliciting proposals and bids for the property. The district’s proposal would stretch the sale process over about 15 months, culminating in a decision in September 2019. Purdue Polytechnic plans to open a second campus in fall 2019, and leaders are looking to nail down a location.