School Finance

Schools could get different amounts of money as Indianapolis tweaks its funding plan

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indianapolis’ largest school district will only make a few changes to the rules that govern how much money schools get next year. But some schools, including those that serve many undocumented students, could get less money.

New guidelines that will help determine how much money schools get for 2018-2019 were approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools at a meeting Thursday, with every member present voting in favor. It’s the second year budgets will be crafted using a new approach that is supposed to tie funding to student needs instead of the programs schools offer. The aim is to give principals more control over their school budgets and send extra money to schools based on how many poor students they educate.

But a change in the rules could result in schools receiving less money to educate poor students next year. The district will continue to award schools $500 per student to help educate poor children. Instead of basing that funding on how many students at each school are poor enough to receive free or discounted meals, however, the district will count students from families who qualify for food stamps and welfare programs, and students in foster care.

That’s the same metric the state started using to determine poverty aid for districts in 2015. Chief financial manager Weston Young said the district is making the switch because it is a more reliable measure of poverty and many families in the district do not submit the paperwork to qualify for subsidized meals.

The district will be giving schools less money overall to help educate poor students because some students who qualify for meal assistance don’t qualify for those state benefits, Young said. Primarily, that includes undocumented students. But because the state is giving schools more money for students who are learning English, the district believes those funds will help make up the loss, he said.

“We believe dollars are still going towards the need, they are just not reflected in the formula,” Young said.

Another change could mean that schools that have historically received extra funding will lose more money next year. The district doubled the amount of money that schools might lose, meaning their budgets could be cut as much as $260,000. If a school is expected to lose more than that, it would receive extra cash from the district.

Preventing schools from losing too much money in one year is just one way the district has limited the impact of the new budgeting approach. As Chalkbeat reported last month, district leaders have made several decisions that mute the changes, and some schools with lots of poor students are still getting shortchanged. The district is also sending millions of extra dollars to magnet programs that attract middle-class families.

District leaders told Chalkbeat they did not want to transition too swiftly because it could be hard for schools to adapt. They emphasized that the board could adjust the rules each year and potentially send more money to high-poverty schools.

“I anticipate that we will adjust each year, so as we learn from each year’s implementation, we will continue to make adjustments,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Ultimately, district leaders see the new funding approach as one piece of a larger district push to give principals more freedom to decide how schools run. Young said that because the funding model is still new, the district is focused on training principals.

“There’s a lot of dollar changes,” he said. “What we are trying to do is … get in front of principals and teach them how to best use those dollars.”

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.