IPS referendum

Indianapolis Public Schools didn’t follow the playbook on its big tax request. Now it’s playing catch-up.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indianapolis Public Schools is getting a do-over.

The school board’s decision to postpone planned ballot measures asking voters to raise taxes for schools — initially to the tune of nearly $1 billion — gives district leaders the chance to build public support alongside key allies in the business community who pressed for the delay.

But this week’s sudden pullback of a pair of referendums is also a setback, raising questions about why leadership of the city’s largest school district couldn’t get it right the first time.

At a time when backers of such measures would typically be beginning their campaigns by explaining the need and shoring up community support, Indianapolis Public Schools officials were juggling a number of other initiatives and not talking much about the prospect of getting the referendums on the ballot. Then, after the board approved going to voters in May, the expected allies never signed on and critics accused the district of not giving enough details.

Put simply, the school district did not follow the playbook for how to successfully win the hearts of taxpayers.

District officials said backpedaling on the referendums — first to reduce the requests from nearly $1 billion to $725 million then to postpone them — showed responsiveness to community concerns.

“What we haven’t done is engage with our community in the way that we should have prior to announcing that we were doing the referenda,” board member Kelly Bentley said at the meeting Monday.

Going forward, she said, the district needs to do more to ensure that community members, parents, and staff understand how desperately the district needs new revenue.

The slow push toward a May vote was brought to an abrupt halt during a board meeting Monday when the head of the Indy Chamber offered to help the district craft its proposal if it delayed until the November election. The board voted 6-0 to delay the referendums, and now has an important ally promising to help as the district tries to regroup.

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders say that with declining state and federal funding, raising local taxes is the only way they can afford regular raises for teachers, the cost of maintaining buildings, and special education services. But some critics have said the district was not being transparent enough about how the money would be spent. The chamber plans to conduct an analysis of the district’s finances to help determine how much money it must seek in the November election.

When Indianapolis’ largest district announced plans to seek more funding from taxpayers in November, it was not a complete surprise. About a year ago, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told Chalkbeat that the district, after years of running at deficits, would “absolutely” need to pursue a referendum to pay for teacher raises.

In the months after that revelation, however, focus quickly shifted to other priorities — including its fraught decision to close and consolidate high schools. While the board continued regular financial updates at public but poorly attended finance committee meetings, there was little push to explain to the public how bleak the district’s financial future appeared.

Indianapolis Public Schools Chief of Staff Ahmed Young said that to understand the campaign for the referendum, it is important to look at all the other recent changes in the district, including the move to close nearly half the district’s high schools.

Ultimately, he said, the district’s decision to put off the tax measures until November shows it is responding to constituents.

“The most exciting part of what took place last night was the fact that we have this extended period of time to really dive deeper into articulating where the district has been and the impact that the referendums will have on the district for the foreseeable future,” he said Tuesday.

In other districts, successful campaigns to raise tax dollars for schools often start with those deep dives into why the money is needed and how it will be used, with district staff and allies sharing information early and often.

Consultant Steve Klink, who has helped districts with over 40 referendums, said that he could not assess the Indianapolis referendum campaign because he was not familiar with the details. But when he works with districts, he said, they explain to the community why they need more money and assess voter support for tax increases before officially approving ballot measures.

“I call that the mind-numbing data stage, because that’s when you put everything out there,” Klink said. “You go through all the nitty-gritty.”

When Washington Township ran a successful campaign for a referendum in 2016, parent volunteers started organizing about a year before the election, said Stacy Lozer, who co-chaired the political action committee. “You kind of ramp up to a very short period of time, but there was a lot of planning and strategizing that went in behind that,” she said.

Tom King, the co-chair of the political action committee supporting Indianapolis Public Schools bid for more money, said when he was involved with IPS’s successful referendum in 2008, he spent a year campaigning.

Before the school board moved to delay the referendums, King told Chalkbeat that the short timeline the district was working with was a challenge.

“If you’re going to do something like this, it’s always helpful if you’ve got a year lead time to get people out there and get them to see things,” he said. “This is one of those where you’re just going to have to get information out there.”

In the months since the district revealed its bid for more funding, a growing chorus of community members have raised concerns that the district is not providing enough information about such a large potential tax increase. Even some community groups and leaders who are usually allies of the district have been reluctant to back the tax increase.

Before the latest move to delay the referendums, said state Rep. Ed Delaney, a Democrat who represents parts of the school district, said the moribund campaign for the referendum was unlike any he had seen before.

“It’s very, very unusual what is going on,” Delaney said. “This is heartbreaking to me. I wish this institution well.”

Despite the lackluster reception the district’s bid for more money has received so far, Delaney is one of many potential allies for Indianapolis Public Schools. The Indianapolis Urban League had also said it wanted to support the district but was concerned about the potential tax increase.

At the board meeting Monday, Shelley Specchio of MIBOR Realtor Association, which represents Realtors in Central Indiana, said her group would reconsider its opposition to the referendum with more information and more time.

Chamber leaders said it decided to partner with the district in developing a new referendum plan because it had heard concerns from its members about how high the tax increase would be. Instead of opposing the referendums or staying neutral, they offered to work with the district.

“The community does not succeed unless IPS succeeds, and we need to be a partner to help them succeed and achieve their visions for the district,” said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the chamber. “Any risk of a loss in a May referendum wasn’t going to do anybody any good.”

IPS referendum

Ferebee, pleading for more money for schools, says teacher raises, security upgrades are on the ballot

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Nathan Harris, who graduated from Arsenal Technical High School, thinks the schools need more funding to serve students from low-income families.

At a quiet meeting held Wednesday in a near northside church, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee made his case: Indianapolis Public Schools needs more money from local taxpayers.

At stake when voters go to the polls in November: The ability of the state’s largest district to foot the cost of raises for teachers and school security improvements, among other expenditures officials deem necessary. There are two property tax hikes on the ballot this year to increase school funding.

Ferebee told the few dozen people who came to the meeting — parents, alumni, district staffers, among them — that, with adequate funding, he envisioned offering the best teacher pay in the state and attracting some of the most talented educators.

“I think every parent in this room would appreciate that,” he said. “We have to be competitive with teachers’ … compensation.”

The superintendent presented a broad outline of the district’s financial woes, but there was not much new information. He devoted most of the meeting to answering questions from those in attendance, who were alternately supportive and skeptical of the referendums.

Reggie Jones, a member of the Indianapolis NAACP education committee, said that while he supports the ballot initiatives, he also wants to know more about how the money will be spent.

Janisce Hamiter, a district bus attendant, expressed concern that some of the money raised will be used to make improvements at buildings that are occupied by charter schools in the district innovation network.

“Private money is going to be used for charter schools. Public money is going to be used for charter schools,” she said. “They are getting both ends of the stick if you ask me.”

She said she hasn’t yet decided which way she’ll vote.

One of the proposed referendums would raise about $52 million to pay for improvements to school buildings, particularly safety features such as new lights, classroom locks, and fire sprinklers. The board voted earlier this month to add that request to the ballot.

The second measure, which is likely to generate significantly more funds, would pay for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Details of that proposal are expected in the coming weeks. The board will hold a July 17 hearing on the measure.

The community meeting was notable because this is the district’s second time this year campaigning for more money from taxpayers, and the success of the referendums could hinge on whether Ferebee makes a strong case to voters. Last year, the district announced plans to seek nearly $1 billion in two referendums that were to be on the ballot in May. But community groups, notably the MIBOR Realtor Association, balked at the size of the request and criticized the district for not providing enough details.

Eventually, the school board chose to delay the vote and work with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly version. The latest proposal for building improvements comes in at about one-quarter of the district’s initial request.

Nathan Harris, who graduated from Arsenal Technical High School but no longer lives in the district, said he supports increasing school funding because he’s familiar with the needs of Indianapolis schools. When so many students come from low-income families, Harris said, “more resources are required.”

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.