IPS referendum

Who supports Indianapolis Public Schools’ bid for more money? It’s not clear.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

More than a month after Indianapolis’ largest school district unveiled plans to ask voters to increase property taxes, it is unclear what groups support it and who will shepherd it through the likely political fight.

Local groups that are often involved in district politics overwhelmingly told Chalkbeat that they have not decided whether to back the measure. And few high-profile community leaders have come out in support.

The district will face two contentious issues: voter concern about large increases in property tax bills, and questions about how the money will be spent. Many probable supporters are waiting to learn more, including whether district schools run by outside operators, known as innovation schools, would benefit.

District leaders are forming a political action committee to lead the campaign and they have not yet determined who will be at the helm, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said. When asked for high-profile supporters of the referendums, he said he did not want to be “presumptuous.”

“I haven’t asked anyone specifically,” he said. “I anticipate over the next couple of months we will see people come out and speak in support.”

The referendums, which are expected to appear on the ballot in May, would increase school funding by as much as $936 million over eight years. One referendum would pay for $200 million to improve school buildings, primarily safety updates. A second ballot measure would raise up to $92 million per year for eight years to pay for operating expenses, such as the cost of special education, with about $66 million dedicated to raises for teachers.

The appeal to voters is driven by declines in state and federal funding, according to the district. Ferebee’s administration says they have trimmed costs as much as possible without impacting academic quality. Without more money from taxpayers, they say they won’t be able to sustain spending on teacher raises and special education services.

Since the Indiana legislature capped property taxes and increased reliance on state money for school budgets in 2008, districts across the state have turned to taxpayers to raise money. More than a third of school districts have asked for tax increases, said Larry DeBoer, an economics professor with Purdue University. About 60 percent of the 164 referendums have been successful.

It is hard to predict which ballot measures will prevail, said DeBoer, who follows referendums across the state.

“So much of it depends on the quality of the campaign and the popularity of the superintendent,” he said. “I’ve given up attempting to predict.”

For now, several of the politically influential groups in the district are on the sidelines while they decide whether to support the measures. That includes the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Metropolitan Indianapolis Board of Realtors, the district teachers union, and Stand for Children, a parent organizing group that helped many of the board members win their seats.

The office of Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, a Democrat, offered a neutral statement from spokesperson Taylor Schaffer. “Mayor Hogsett urges residents to become educated on the proposal, and become engaged by letting their voices be heard at the ballot box in May,” she wrote.

Some of the most involved community members say they understand the need for more money, but they have not decided about the referendum. At least in part that’s because supporters and critics of innovation schools are waiting for the district to explain how much those schools would benefit from the tax increase.

Innovation schools are part of the district but managed by outside nonprofits or charter operators. The schools are often in district buildings and educate children who live in the district. But their teachers are employed by the operator and they cannot join the district union.

David Greene of Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis, which has been consistently critical of Ferebee’s administration, wrote in a statement that the group supports quality facilities and competitive teacher pay, but the community does not know what will happen with the money raised.

“It would be a great tragedy to the community if taxes were paid and facility upgrades happened to building(s) that went to innovation schools,” he added.

That’s also a sticking point for the teachers union. Even with the promise of raises for teachers, some members are ambivalent about the proposal because they are concerned the district will direct the money to innovation schools, said Rhondalyn Cornett, president of the Indianapolis Education Association.

“The state is starving districts using public funds to fund charter schools and parochial schools or private schools now. You don’t leave districts with a choice,” Cornett said. But teachers “don’t trust that the money is going to be used just for … IPS employees.”

At the same time, supporters of innovation schools, such as the parent organizing group Stand for Children, want to know more about how much money will go to those schools before deciding whether to back the measures.

Stand has members with children in traditional district and innovation schools, said executive director Justin Ohlemiller. They want to ensure that “kids across all the district regardless of school type are benefiting.”

Despite the uneasiness over how much of the money will go to innovation schools, many local leaders agree the district needs more money.

“This is the school district’s only way to get the adequate funding to give teacher pay raises and to adequately fund their operating needs at the school district level,” said Sen. Greg Taylor, a democrat who represents part of the district in the state legislature and has two children in IPS schools.

Taylor said he wants to understand the details of the referendums before endorsing them, but he is likely to support them. “There’s no doubt in my mind that teachers’ salaries need to go up a notch,” he added.

But some potential supporters balked at the steep tax increases the district is proposing. The operating referendum is one of the largest an Indiana school district has sought since 2009. If both referendums pass, taxes could go up as much as $28 per month for a house worth $123,500.

Betsy Wiley, who leads the pro-school choice advocacy group Institute for Quality Education, said that as an IPS taxpayer, she is personally leaning against the referendum because of the cost.

“I think investment in IPS makes sense. I think the size that they are asking for is what people may question,” said Wiley. “If I were on a fixed income, I would freak out.”

Asking people to vote to increase their taxes will always be a challenge, said school board President Mike O’Connor. But “people support paying teachers competitive wages. People support providing good, high-quality education.”

Over the next four months, it will be up to the supporters of the referendum to convince voters that increasing school funding will pay off.

“We’ve got work to do,” O’Connor said.

IPS referendum

Indianapolis Public Schools offers buyouts to up to 150 teachers

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Indianapolis Public Schools is offering $20,000 buyouts to teachers who retire.

Indianapolis Public Schools is offering teachers $20,000 payments to retire, in a move that could cut costs amid a severe deficit.

Nearly 250 educators are eligible for the buyout, which would be contributed directly to retirement plans for teachers who take the offer, according to the district.

District officials say the offer is not a cost-cutting move but rather an effort to enhance the district’s ability to set its budget for next year and plan for its hiring needs. In a written response to questions, head of human resources Mindy Schlegel wrote the offer “is not a buyout, but an early notice incentive.”

“The district is focused on incentivizing early notice of planned retirements so we can apply those notices to budgeting and staffing work principals are doing now versus addressing those challenges in June,” she wrote. “Knowing staffing shifts early is one of the most critical levers they can use in planning for next year.”

Teachers have 11 days to make their decision. They must notify the administration by 5 p.m. on April 20 if they want to take the buyout, according to the district. The district apparently could back out of the deal, though — officials have until May 4 to decide whether to go forward with the program.

A minimum of 100 and a maximum of 150 educators would have to accept the offer for the district to go through with it. If 150 teachers accept the $20,000, the payouts could cost the district as much as $3 million. The district could ultimately save money even if it replaces retired teachers, because veteran teachers are paid more.

When asked how much the offer could save the district in the long run, Schlegel said the payments are “not really about cost savings.”

School board member Mary Ann Sullivan said the offer has a number of benefits. It could help the district get a clearer picture of its staff and finances at a time when it is facing a severe budget shortfall. But it could also help the district avoid laying off teachers, she said.

“If you can manage to not do that — avoid that situation — most people would think that’s a good goal,” she said.

To take advantage of the deal, teachers need to be eligible for regular retirement under the rules of the Indiana Public Retirement System. Teachers as young as 55 years old could be eligible if they have at least 30 years of service. Older teachers would be eligible with fewer years of service. Teachers would need to retire at the end of the 2017-18 school year.

The retirement plan administrator, VALIC, will host a session 4:30 to 6 p.m. Thursday in the boardroom of the Education Services Center, according to an email sent to teachers and obtained by Chalkbeat.

“I hate to lose teachers,” said Rhondalyn Cornett, president of the Indianapolis Education Association. But the offer could be desirable for teachers who were trying to decide whether they can afford to retire, she said. “It’s a good opportunity because I do know there are some teachers who are going to want it.”

Some teachers were already considering retirement because they were displaced during the high school closing process, Cornett said.

The incentive for higher-paid teachers to retire comes at the same time as the district is considering ways to cut costs after withdrawing a request for more funding from taxpayers. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has told RTV6 the district might also freeze hiring and furlough administrators. Last week, Schlegel told Chalkbeat the district had not yet decided whether teachers might be laid off.

In her email about retirement incentives, Schlegel wrote she did not anticipate the plan would affect class size. Whether the district replaces teachers will depend on the subjects they teach, she wrote.

The district has been grappling with budget deficits for years, but the issue has become more severe in recent months. District leaders say the budget crunch is caused by declining state and federal funding as well as the high cost of operating expenses such as raises for teachers.

In November, the administration released a plan to appeal to voters to increase property taxes and school funding. But following a rocky rollout and campaign, district leaders first reduced their request and then withdrew the referendum. They are currently working with the Indy Chamber to review finances and craft a request that would appear on the November ballot.

IPS referendum

147 Indianapolis educators still don’t know where they will work next year

Thomas Barwick | Getty Images

Nearly 150 Indianapolis Public Schools educators don’t know where they will teach next year, more than six months after the district announced that many high school teachers would be required to reinterview for their positions.

The administration displaced 418 certified staff for 2018-19 as part of the closings of three of its seven high schools. Many of those educators have found positions, but 147 current high school staffers have not, according to the administration.

If the teachers are not hired for a new position, they remain on the displaced list. If they do not find positions by July 15, they will be placed in vacancies that match their license area, according to Mindy Schlegel, who heads human resources for the district. There are currently 163 open positions in secondary schools, and educators could move to middle or elementary schools depending on their licenses.

“We think that given the fact that 400 teachers were initially displaced as a part of the transition, this process has gone smoothly,” Schlegel wrote in an email.

The decision to displace teachers at high schools across the district — including campuses that will stay open — was designed to help educators find schools that are “the right fit.” But the move created additional uncertainty at a time when high schools were already in upheaval, and some teachers are dejected that they were required to apply and reinterview for positions they have held for years.

Now, there is additional uncertainty around the process because the district is in the midst of a severe budget crunch. After postponing a referendum that would have appealed to voters for tens of millions of dollars in extra funding each year, the district is facing a large shortfall next year. The district could impose hiring freezes or other cuts to spending on staff in order to help close that gap.

The administration has not yet decided whether to lay off any teachers through a reduction in force, Schlegel wrote, and her office is focused on placing high school teachers.

“The administration has had discussions with staff internally around what’s the best way to approach reducing expenditures, but also protecting the classroom and maintaining as many staff members as possible,” she wrote.

Not all high school teachers were displaced. Some educators remained in the same positions even if they transferred to new schools, including those with training to teach International Baccalaureate courses, arts specialists, life skills teachers, and career and technical teachers.

The move to require teachers to reinterview for positions was part of a broad push to reconfigure the district’s high schools in a bid to save money, improve the schools’ quality, and attract students. The district is closing three high schools and overhauling the academic approach at the four remaining campuses to create academies with focuses such as engineering, construction, and teaching. High school students also were required to select new schools based on their interests.

Media specialist Gregg Nowling considers himself lucky. After nearly five years at Arsenal Technical High School, he was required to reinterview for his position at the school, and he was not rehired. Within weeks, however, he had found a position at Harshman Middle School. Many of his friends have not yet found positions.

“There’s a lot of guilt there,” he said. “It’s horrible. You have teachers applying for jobs that they’ve had for years — that they’ve been really good at for years.”

Rhondalyn Cornett, president of the Indianapolis Education Association, said that many teachers are distrustful of the process. Veteran educators are frustrated watching younger teachers get placed before they do, she said, and some believe they have not gotten placed precisely because they are more experienced. (Although veteran teachers are higher paid, school principals pay the same amount regardless of experience level and the district absorbs the difference in pay.)

“It is demoralizing,” Cornett said.