School Finance

3 Marion County districts will ask voters for more tax money Tuesday

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Perry Township and Beech Grove Schools have school repairs as part of their plans if voters approve new money Tuesday.

Three Marion County school districts say they need extra money to pay teachers, fix school buildings and continue to ensure children can have a bus ride to school.

Wayne Township and Perry Township will ask voters to approve new tax increases on the ballot for Tuesday’s primary election.

For Beech Grove, one referendum would continue to raise money to support its busing system, which could be scaled back or even discontinued if it fails, and a second would pay for building repairs.

Superintendent Paul Kaiser said the building fixes must be made. The only question is how long they’ll take and how much they will cost. Ideally, the district would complete its construction this summer.

“If we don’t do it with the referendum, it will take us 10 years to replace it all,” he said. “The cost of equipment and materials will go up a lot over the 10 years. This is more efficient.”

Here’s a breakdown of each district’s ballot requests:

Beech Grove Schools

  • Proposed tax increases: Two referenda will be up for a vote: A 35-cent continuation of existing taxes and a 15-cent increase per $100 of a property’s assessed value.
  • What the increase will support: busing, updated band and choir rooms, heating and air conditioning systems.
  • Potential new cost to the average homeowner: Less than $36 per year for the 15-cent tax increase.

Perry Township

  • Proposed tax increases: Two referenda will be up for a vote: A 42-cent increase and a 13-cent increase per $100 of a property’s assessed value.
  • What the increase will support: hiring of bus drivers and janitors and building more classrooms for the growing student population.
  • Potential new cost to the average homeowner: About $118 per year if both pass.

Wayne Township

  • Proposed Tax increases: A 35-cent increase per $100 of a property’s assessed value.
  • What the increase will support: teacher and staff salaries.
  • Potential new cost to the average homeowner: Less than $100 per year.

Kaiser said his district needs the 15-cent tax increase to update heating and air conditioning in four of its five buildings, and the high school needs updated band and choir rooms for a program that has seen the number of participants more than triple.

Tom Little, superintendent in Perry Township, said his district is struggling to keep up with enrollment growth — the district is already using 26 portable classroom “trailers” as a temporary fix, and they’re bringing in 14 more for next year.

“Whenever you add kids and are growing like we are, you need more bus drivers to transport kids,” Little said. “And whenever you add more classrooms and more areas, you have to have custodians to clean them.”

Yet there are still shortfalls districts say they’ve been dealing with since the state decided to put in place caps on property taxes that limited what schools could collect.

In 2010, the Indiana legislature passed a bill to stabilize homeowners’ property taxes. Homeowners now can’t pay more than one percent of the total assessed value of their property in property taxes. If a home is assessed at 150,000, residents won’t pay more than $1,500 in taxes.

Those caps meant schools lost a primary source of money, so the state allowed school districts to go to local taxpayers to seek voter approval for extra money if they fell
 short.

Wayne Township lost 37 percent of its property tax revenue when the tax caps went in place, Superintendent Jeff Butts said at a meeting earlier this year. Only Beech Grove’s 39 percent loss was bigger in Marion County, he said. Wayne Township is the second largest district in the county behind Indianapolis Public Schools.

Supporters of the tax caps believe they offer much-needed relief to homeowners who have seen property values vary widely in the past. But critics argue they cut off a viable way for districts to pay for services for students.

Kaiser said he is confident his community will support the ballot proposals because even with the changes, taxes would still be lower than they were in 2007.

“Our community, they care about the living environment for kids with the heating and cooling, and they care about the performing arts,” Kaiser said. “We think they’ll support it.”

But he’s still got a back-up plan. If the referendum should not pass, Kaiser said, the district will have to cancel busing or reduce it significantly.

If Perry Township’s referenda don’t pass, Little said the district will continue using portable classrooms and would have to convert art and music space, the library and even gyms into classrooms for elementary school students. And Wayne Township would almost certainly see layoffs if the tax increases aren’t approved, officials said.

At this point, it’s up to voters, Little said, and he’s cautiously optimistic.

“We need to go to the community, and we need to express to the community the issues we’re having and the concerns we’ve got,” Little said. “This really places the entire future of the school corporation in the hands of the taxpayer, who foots the bill, and that’s more than fair.”

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million per year for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million per year for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.