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.”

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.