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.