Indianapolis Public Schools suspends $725 million tax hike plan after business leaders’ criticism

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Indy Chamber CEO Michael Huber, IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and IPS Board President Michael O'Connor during a press briefing Monday night.

In a stunning twist to a sluggish effort, Indianapolis Public Schools’ bid for $725 million in tax hikes was brought to a halt Monday night by business leaders.

The Indy Chamber stepped in to ask the school board to postpone its two referendums until November. In exchange, the chamber — a key partner for the district that had been quietly withholding crucial backing for the ballot questions — said it would analyze the district’s finances and work with the community to build support.

The board voted 6-0 to withdraw the request for tax increases during the May primary election. Dorene Hoops was absent from the meeting.

Monday night’s sudden pullback from the referendums comes as another blow to the district’s efforts.

The district had already reduced its initial ask, which had amounted to nearly $1 billion, after its requests were met with hesitance from both the business community and taxpayers concerned about the substantial cost.

Board president Michael O’Connor said the fumbled approach to the referendum was his responsibility.

“It’s my fault,” he said. “I thought sincerely that that second number would get us where we needed to be with the community we needed to be behind us, and I was wrong.”

Michael Huber, the CEO of the chamber, made the appeal to the board during a public comment period at the board meeting. But the move was clearly planned in advance, and the district followed the meeting with a press conference.

Huber said that over the last few weeks, the chamber has discussed concerns about the referendum with the district. He said the district needs more time to answer questions from the community.

“While we are under the assumption that the district needs increased financial resources,” Huber said, “it is a very large number on the operating and the capital side, and some very complex questions have been generated.”

In voting to withdraw the referendums, board member Kelly Bentley acknowledged that the district hadn’t done enough work to get people on board with its proposal.

“The administration, in my opinion, needs to take the lead on engaging with the community,” she said. “I don’t know that we’ve done that very well.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said his administration did not engage the community sooner because they were focused on closing three of the district’s seven high schools.

“That was driving our timeline and our process,” he said.

Officials have painted a dire financial picture for Indianapolis’ largest school district, saying the additional funding was needed to prevent cost-cutting measures such as teacher pay freezes and transportation cuts.

The tax increases would raise funds for teacher raises, special education services, and building improvements. But the district has said it would still need to dip into cash reserves, put off building maintenance, and ditch expanded transportation plans.

There are costs to delaying the referendums until November. Even if the measures pass, the district will not get more money until later in the year, so the administration will need to reduce spending at the start of the 2018-2019 school year, Ferebee said. Those cuts could include district staff, transportation, and building maintenance, he said.

“We will have to make some uncomfortable reductions,” he said. “That could be a reminder for our constituents that the district is operating a structural deficit.”

The chamber has previously recommended a financial overhaul of the district. In 2014, as it faced a projected $30 million budget deficit, the chamber recommended the district “right-size” by slashing its staffing levels and reducing its building space.

Later, the district found its deficit didn’t actually exist — and when the accounting was straightened out, the district said it was instead running a surplus.


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.