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.

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.