School Finance

IPS unveils a scaled-back tax request to fund building renovations

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

The state’s largest district is likely to ask voters for $52 million to fund building improvements, much of which district leaders say are essential to student safety. The request — which comes three months after the district abruptly withdrew a proposal from the May ballot — is the first piece of a new plan to increase school funding.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials say nearly $41 million in funding will increase safety with improvements such as new lighting, classroom locks, and fire sprinklers. Another $11 million will pay for other building improvements. District officials expect to release information about a second referendum that would raise funds for operating expenses, such as teacher pay, in late June or early July. That request is likely to be significantly more costly.

The $52 million funding request represents only about one-quarter of the district’s initial proposal, and the money, which would be spread across 62 campuses and the district police, would cover only a fraction of the needs the administration identified. Many of those buildings are old, and it has been nearly a decade since voters approved a referendum to fund updates. The measure would increase taxes by $1.33 per month for taxpayers with houses at the district’s median value — $123,500.

This is district’s second attempt in less than a year to win increased funding. The administration revealed plans last November to seek nearly $1 billion more from voters in two referendums, including about $200 million in improvements to school buildings. But when the measures failed to win significant support from community leaders, the school board withdrew plans for a May vote.

In order to cut the cost to about $52 million from the initial request of about $200 million, the district significantly cut building improvements, said Ahmed Young, chief of staff for the district. Those cuts include planned spending on improving energy efficiency, deferred maintenance, and technology upgrades, he said.

The administration substantially cut the capital request to leave room to ask for more money for operating expenses without putting too large a burden on taxpayers, said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

“We are just in a tough place of trying to manage priorities,” Ferebee said.

One area where the district would still be making significant investments is school safety, Young said. That’s a particular priority because of the shootings that have killed children and devastated schools across the country in recent years. Less than two weeks ago, a student and a teacher were injured in a shooting in the Indianapolis suburb of Noblesville.

The district removed plans to update playgrounds so they are accessible for children with disabilities. That sacrifice raised particular concerns for some board members. Board member Mary Ann Sullivan asked the district to find out how many nearby districts have playgrounds that are not accessible.

“At some point we have to stop having some of our kids not have the same opportunities as other students,” she said.

The hearing Monday, a first step in the process of getting the measure on the ballot, was only about raising money for building improvements. The details on the projects at each campus are available here.

Several board members raised concerns about the long-term impact of reducing the request.

“The needs are still there,” said board member Kelly Bentley. “We are kicking the can down the road on deferred maintenance.”

The proposal would increase taxes for property owners in the district boundaries by as much as 3 cents per $100 of assessed value. That’s down from the initial request, which would’ve cost taxpayer as much as 14 cents per $100 of assessed value.

The board will hold another public hearing 6 p.m. Wednesday at the central office, 120 E. Walnut St. If the school board approves the proposal at that meeting, the measure is expected to appear on the November ballot. That gives supporters five months to make the case to voters that they should increase their property taxes to support public schools.

The first effort to win support for a referendum was hampered in part by a sluggish campaign. Instead of building support for a potential referendum, district leaders spent months juggling other initiatives. The expected allies never signed on, and critics accused the district of not providing enough details.

Ultimately, the district’s campaign fizzled before voters cast their ballots. The Indy Chamber swooped in, offering to help with financial analysis and building community support if the district postponed the vote until November.

Since then, the district rolled out a plan to cut about $21 million from its $269 million general fund budget for 2018-19, according to a preliminary budget document. Those cuts are likely just the beginning if Indianapolis Public Schools is not able to find other savings or get more money from taxpayers.

Referendums to increase property taxes have become common in recent years. State lawmakers capped property taxes in 2010, and schools can only use that money for things like construction or transportation — not salaries. But voters can decide to override those caps in their communities. This May, voters across Indiana approved referendums to increase school funding. All 11 measures on the ballot were approved, including one for Indianapolis’ Warren Township Schools.

IPS referendum

Seeking property tax hikes, Indianapolis Public Schools considers selling headquarters

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

As Indianapolis Public Schools leaders prepare to ask voters for more money, they are considering a dramatic move: Selling the district’s downtown headquarters.

The administration is exploring the sale of its building at 120 E. Walnut St., which has housed the district’s central office since 1960, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Although architecturally dated, the concrete building has location in its favor. It sits on a 1.7-acre lot, just blocks from the Central Library, the cultural trail, and new development.

A sale could prove lucrative for the cash-strapped Indianapolis Public Schools, which is facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year.

A decision to sell the property could also convince voters, who are being asked to approve property taxes hikes in November, that the district is doing all it can to raise money. Two referendums to generate additional revenue for schools are expected to be on the ballot.

“IPS has been very committed and aggressive to its efforts to right-sizing and being good stewards to taxpayers dollars,” Ferebee said. “Hopefully, that [will] provide much confidence to taxpayers that when they are making investments into IPS, they are strong investments.”

Before going to taxpayers for more money, the district has “exhausted most options for generating revenue,” Ferebee added.

The administration is selling property to shrink the physical footprint of a district where enrollment has declined for decades. The number of students peaked at nearly 109,000 late-1960s. This past academic year, enrollment was 31,000.

During Ferebee’s tenure, officials say Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk its central office spending. But the district continues to face longstanding criticism over the expense of its administrative staff at a time when school budgets are tight.

Ferebee’s administration has been selling underused buildings since late 2015, including the former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Mass. Ave., and at least three former school campuses. Selling those buildings has both cut maintenance costs and generated revenue. By the end of this year, officials expect to have sold 10 properties and raised nearly $21 million.

But the district is also embroiled in a more complicated real estate deal. After closing Broad Ripple High School, the district wants to sell the property. But state law requires that charter schools get first dibs on the building, and two charter high schools recently floated a joint proposal to purchase the building.

The prospect of selling the central office raises a significant challenge: If the building were sold, the district would either need to make a deal for office space at the site or find a new location for its employees who work there. Ferebee said the district is open to moving these staffers, so long as the new location is centrally located, and therefore accessible to families from all around the district.

It will likely be months before the district decides whether or not to sell the property. The process will begin in late July or early August when the district invites developers to submit proposals for the property, but not a financial bid, according to Abbe Hohmann, a commercial real estate consultant who has been helping the district sell property since 2014.

Once the district sees developers’ ideas, leaders will make a decision about whether or not to sell the building. If it decides to move forward, it would proceed with a more formal process of a request for bids, and could make a decision on a bid in early 2019, Hohmann said.

Hohmann did not provide an estimate of how much the central office building could fetch. But when it comes to other sales, the district has “far exceeded our expectations,” she said. “We’ve had a great response from the development community.”

Eyes on

Happening at a campus near you: Here’s what the security review of every public school in Tennessee looks like

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sumner County Schools safety coordinator Katie Brown and Gallatin police Lt. Billy Vahldiek examine the window pane in a school hallway to make sure the glass is shatter-resistant. The review team is one of more than a hundred across the state who are conducting security assessments this summer of every Tennessee public school.

Balancing a clipboard in one hand and a coffee tumbler in the other, Katie Brown bends down to inspect a window pane in the hallway of a 10-year-old Tennessee school building.

The glass is shatter-resistant. Check.

Down the hall, Lt. Billy Vahldiek opens an outside exit door and then watches as it latches and locks properly. Check.

Earlier that morning, both Brown and Vahldiek circled the elementary school’s outside perimeter to make sure lighting is adequate, signage is clear, and landscaping doesn’t create blind spots where an intruder could hide.

The pair — one a school safety coordinator, the other a police officer — are teaming up on this day in Sumner County, north of Nashville, to walk through several schools and review security protocols with their principals as part of a statewide review.

“A lot of these schools were built post-Columbine, and some of them are post-Sandy Hook, but none of them are post-Parkland,” said Vahldiek, a Gallatin police officer, chronologically listing three of the nation’s most horrific school shootings.

Aging school facilities and heightened safety concerns are the prime drivers behind Tennessee’s sweeping summertime inspection of all 1,800 of its public school campuses. Gov. Bill Haslam ordered the unprecedented assessment in March following an intruder’s fatal shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The state’s goal is to identify vulnerabilities that could put Tennessee students and staff at similar risk — and to inform districts how they should use $35 million in safety grants in the months ahead.

Tennessee is among states that responded to Parkland by stepping up their upcoming budgets for thwarting potential attackers. This spring, Haslam and the Legislature doubled to $10 million the amount of recurring annual safety grants — and also provided a one-time investment of $25 million. A share of the money will become available to all 147 districts beginning in July based on Tennessee’s school funding formula — but only after the school systems provide the state with safety inventories of all of their schools.

"It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this."Mike Hermann, Tennessee Department of Education

“It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this,” said Mike Hermann, who is helping to coordinate the review in behalf of the state Education Department.

“Our work is definitely cut out for us this summer,” added Commissioner David Purkey, whose Safety and Homeland Security department is spearheading the initiative. “But there’s a sense of urgency. We want to get it all done by the start of the school year, at least that’s our goal.”

As of this week, about a third of the inspection reports had been submitted — on pace with the state’s timetable. In mid-July, Tennessee will begin accepting applications for the extra spending money.

Most of the one-time grants are expected to further harden school campuses with improvements like upgraded security cameras, fixing or replacing broken locks or outdated doors, and beefing up front entrances. The smaller annual funding could be tapped to hire law enforcement officers to police some campuses, though the money is a drop in the bucket toward providing coverage for every school. There’s also opportunity to invest in mental health services if that’s identified as a local priority.

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The money will only go so far. Still, officials believe the safety review lays the groundwork for next steps.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for schools to make an honest appraisal of where they are with security,” Hermann said. “And we’re going to have a much clearer picture of where we are statewide so that future action by the next governor and General Assembly can be based on a higher level of information.”

The reviews are conducted by local teams who participated in regional trainings provided by the state Safety and Homeland Security Department. Comprised of school personnel and local law enforcement, each two-person team follows an 89-point checklist of risks and precautions based on national standards developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
On-site security reviews are being conducted in schools statewide this summer under an order from Gov. Bill Haslam.

Depending on the building’s age and size, each review usually take two to three hours as inspection teams meet with the principal and inspect the physical facility. Can a school control access to the building? Do all staff wear photo identification badges on campus? Do teachers keep their classroom doors locked?

“The days of propping open doors on a pretty day are gone,” said Brown as she and Vahldiek went through the checklist during one inspection.

The teams also document the availability of personnel for security and for student support services such as school psychologists, as well as relationships with local law enforcement and healthcare providers. Finally, they submit their reports to the state and include copies of each school’s emergency plans and its drill logs from the previous year.

Unfortunately, summertime does not lend itself to seeing a school on a typical school day. For now, the buildings are mostly empty of students and staff as classrooms are painted, floors are waxed, and maintenance performed. But Brown views school break as a good time to look at the nitty-gritty details and to have thoughtful, unrushed conversations with school leaders that should trickle down to faculty and staff.

“We absolutely are taking this seriously,” said Brown, who is coordinating 46 reviews for Sumner County Schools.

“Most things on the checklist are not requirements or codes; they’re recommendations and best practices,” she said. “But this raises our awareness. It reinforces the good things we’re already doing. And it will inform how we use the safety grants.”

Editor’s note: This story does not name the school being inspected as a condition of Chalkbeat’s reporter shadowing the review team.