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 scales back referendum (again) to win chamber support

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

To strike a bargain with a politically powerful ally, Indianapolis Public Schools leaders voted to shrink — again — the district’s multimillion-dollar funding request to taxpayers.

The new request amounts to $220 million over eight years. And this time, the proposal will be supported by the business group, which could play a pivotal role in helping the district win over voters.

The new request comes after a week of intense negotiations between the district and the chamber, which threatened to oppose the district’s operating referendum. Chamber officials had presented a plan that asked taxpayers for $100 million along with massive cuts that they said would make Indianapolis Public Schools operate more efficiently. The district then countered that $315 million was the bare minimum needed to serve students.

The school board voted 5-0 in favor of the reduced request at its meeting Tuesday night. Board members Mary Ann Sullivan, Venita Moore, Michael O’Connor, Elizabeth Gore, and Diane Arnold supported the measure. Board members Dorene Rodriguez Hoops and Kelly Bentley were absent. The plan will appear on the November ballot with an additional tax measure to raise $52 million for building improvements.

District leaders have been collaborating with the chamber for more than four months to craft a slimmed down request after their first proposal garnered little community support. The agreement approved Tuesday represents a compromise between the chamber’s plan and the district’s request.

The reduced request was clearly a bitter pill for many of the school board members to swallow.

Moore said that the students in Indianapolis Public Schools deserve better than the district has been able to provide. The chamber has promised that if the funds are not enough to ensure a high-quality education, the business group will work with the district to pursue another referendum, she said.

Children of color represent more than 70 percent of the school district, said Moore, who is black. “We deserve a quality education,” she said. “Our children do not deserve substandard education, books, instruments, or tools.”

In a prepared statement, Sullivan raised several concerns about the impact on the district of the smaller proposal, which she said was based on assumptions that are “unrealistic, politically naive, and potentially damaging to our community.”

Sullivan said the cuts proposed in the chamber’s report would never be accepted in suburban communities with affluent families like Carmel, Zionsville, and Brownsburg.

“IPS cannot intentionally build or allow ourselves to be satisfied running a system of second- or third-class public schools simply because we primarily serve low-income families and students of color,” she said.

The $220 million request that the groups settled on includes a raise in pay for teachers, but the district is not committing to a specific increase. There will also be about $95 million in cuts, including $31 million in transportation, $47 million in facilities, and $17 million in food service, according to the district.

For now, budgets for individual schools will be “business as usual,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. But, ultimately, the district may need to close more than a dozen schools as part of the plan, he said.

“It will be a complex process,” Ferebee said. Before the district makes decisions on what schools to close, he added, the board members will have to “consider the impact on neighborhoods, the impact on education outcomes.”

The plan will result in a slower process for school closings, a longer phase-in of transportation changes, and a slower pace for reducing the number of teachers compared to the chamber’s initial proposal, according to the business group.

Indy Chamber CEO Michael Huber said the district must work through “thorny issues” going forward. But he was optimistic about the plan.

“We feel strongly that where we’ve landed really balances the impacts of where you are trying to take the district, and the positive changes you are making, and also the impact with quality of life on our city,” he told the board.

The chamber has not yet determined whether to actively campaign for the referendum, but the group will vocally back the tax measure, said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the Indy Chamber.

“We are going to be offering our full-throated support — our full support for the referendum,” he said. “Hopefully we will be able to build a broader community consensus on the increased funding for IPS.”

The agreement entwines the district with the chamber for the long haul. The business group will help raise private funds for two staff members who would be dedicated to pushing for sweeping changes that the chamber recommended in its report earlier this month, Fisher said.

“Making sure that they are implementing at an appropriate level and speed is going to be key,” said Fisher.

The new plan is less than a third of the size of the initial proposal that the district made seven months ago, which would have raised $736 million over eight years for operating expenses. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said last week that the district may need to return to voters for more money if the first request does not raise enough.

But while district officials clearly support a larger request, there has been significant pressure for them to come to an agreement with the chamber.

This story has been updated.

IPS referendum

To bring down potential tax hikes, chamber proposes slashing Indianapolis Public Schools budget

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students walk through the halls at the Career Technology Center at Arsenal Technical High School.

In a political showdown, one of the most vocal supporters of Indianapolis Public Schools is pressuring the district’s administration to make aggressive budget cuts and significantly reduce its request for more taxpayer money.

The Indy Chamber unveiled a plan Wednesday proposing nearly $500 million in sweeping cuts to Indianapolis Public Schools over eight years. And the chamber drew a line for its support of requesting more money from taxpayers: Chamber officials say they believe the district should only ask for $152 million in additional funding through tax increases, a significant reduction from what started as a nearly $1 billion request.

The district is set to decide next week how much it will seek from taxpayers in November.

Philanthropist and influential business leader Al Hubbard, who played a significant role in the analysis, gave an unvarnished pitch for the district to embrace the chamber’s recommendation during a press conference.

“Our hope is that they are going to embrace this proposal,” Hubbard said. “If they propose a referendum that’s higher than this, we will have to oppose them.”

But the district pushed back. In a statement, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the district will continue to work with the chamber as officials work toward a referendum amount. But he raised concerns about the cost-cutting measures recommended, particularly what he described as closing a “devastating” number of schools.

“IPS is committed to further action to reduce unnecessary expenditures,” Ferebee said. “We believe, however, that a responsible referendum request cannot be anchored solely in revenue from cost savings that to this point are on paper only.”

The report came on the heels of months of work between the district and the chamber after the school board agreed to delay a plan to ask voters for more money in May. In exchange for the delay, the chamber committed to analyze Indianapolis Public Schools’ finances, help draft a new request — and, importantly, lend its political support to a tax increase.

The proposal now puts school officials in a bind: If they adopt the chamber’s plan, or something similar, they will need to dramatically overhaul district spending in the coming years. Alternatively, if they reject the austerity measures, they could lose the chamber’s support and struggle to persuade voters that more funding is essential.

The largest savings in the chamber’s plan, expected to save $477 million over eight years, would come from:

  • Reducing the number of teachers through attrition ($126 million).
  • Eliminating busing for high school students and relying on public transit ($121 million).
  • Reducing unused space more than likely by closing schools ($100 million).
  • Cutting the central office staff by 50 percent ($33 million).
  • Reducing the number of custodians ($19 million).

Another $62 million would come from “operating efficiencies,” a bucket that includes wide-ranging suggestions such as cutting classroom assistants, contracting out nursing, expanding health savings accounts for employees, and switching to an internet phone system.

Ahmed Young, the chief of staff for the district, said Indianapolis Public Schools has significantly cut spending on its central office and sold underused properties in recent years. He said the district would continue to work with the chamber to come to an agreement in the coming days.

“There are elements that we disagree on obviously, and we are going to continue to lift up our hood and make sure our engine is running properly,” he said.

The plan also includes two potentially controversial real estate deals. It calls for leasing the Broad Ripple High School building to Purdue Polytechnic High School and Indianapolis Classical Schools, which runs Herron High School. That proposal has ignited controversy in recent weeks, as local political leaders have put increasing pressure on the district to accept an offer for the building, while Indianapolis Public Schools officials have said they plan to have an open process to gauge interest. The chamber is also calling for the district to look into selling its central office building, which officials are already considering.

The chamber contends that the cuts it recommends could balance the district’s budget — which is projected to have a deficit of about $45 million next school year. But the chamber is also proposing $243 million in extra spending on teacher and principal pay to reduce turnover and make Indianapolis Public Schools more competitive with nearby districts.

Indianapolis Public Schools spends the most per student of any comparable district, according to chamber data from 2016-17. But its teacher pay is relatively low compared to other districts, especially for mid- and late-career teachers. In part, that’s because the district only spends about 47 percent of its budget in classrooms, according to the chamber.

Under the chamber’s plan, teacher pay would go up by 16 percent and principal pay would rise to $150,000 per year by 2020-21. After that, all IPS employees would receive 2 percent raises each year.

To fund those raises, the chamber is proposing increasing local funding by $100 million for operating expenses, such as teacher pay, over eight years by asking voters to approve a tax increase. The plan also includes a second tax measure to raise $52 million for building improvements, primarily focused on safety, that was announced by the district in June.

That’s a significant decrease from the district’s original proposal for referendums. Indianapolis Public Schools officials announced last year that they would seek nearly $1 billion more over eight years from local taxpayers in May. After that plan failed to gain support from community leaders, the district first reduced its request and then delayed the vote until November.

The chamber acknowledged that the cuts it is recommending would be painful.

“What we are asking them to do is tough. Closing schools is very difficult. Reducing the number of employees is very difficult,” said Hubbard. “At the same time, we think it’s unfair to the taxpayer to pay for empty seats or to pay for unnecessary staff.”

School board president Michael O’Connor said the district has had a longstanding partnership with the Indy Chamber, and he expects them to come to an agreement in the coming days.

“If we keep that perspective, that we’ve been partners on a lot of very difficult things, in the forefront, and we keep talking between now and Tuesday afternoon at 5:45 p.m., I think we will probably find some common ground,” he said.

The chamber’s report echoes a similar finding in 2014, when the district was projected to run a budget deficit. The chamber made similar recommendations, including selling the district’s headquarters and relying more on public transportation. The administration eventually implemented some of those suggestions, but concerns about the deficit dissipated when it was revealed to be an accounting error.

The current Indianapolis Public Schools administration is often lauded by the business community, and the chamber, for steps it has taken to transform the district in recent years, including the push for more school choices and the closure of some underused high schools. Indy Chamber CEO Michael Huber echoed that support Wednesday, describing Ferebee as “one of the best superintendents in the country.”

“We very much believe in Dr. Ferebee’s abilities to implement these solutions,” Huber said. “We wouldn’t be wasting our time throwing out hypotheticals or theoretical solutions.”

The plan was crafted by consultants from Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting and Policy Analytics, LLC, who had access to reams of information and prior reports from Indianapolis Public Schools.

This story has been updated.