School Finance

Campaign for IPS tax referendums gets a $100,000 boost from advocacy group

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The parent organizing group Stand for Children is donating $100,000 to the campaign for more funding for Indianapolis Public Schools.

A parent organizing and advocacy group is donating $100,000 to the campaign for more taxpayer funding for Indianapolis Public Schools.

Stand for Children Indiana, the local chapter of a national organization, will also launch a vast door-knocking campaign in support of two referendums requesting an extra $272 million from taxpayers, the group announced Thursday. Stand’s backing could prove crucial for the district, which has struggled to garner community support for more funding.

“The thousands of IPS parents and supporters affiliated with our organization have made clear that more money is needed for our classrooms – especially when it comes to boosting pay for teachers,” said Stand Indiana Executive Director Justin Ohlemiller in a statement. “We have to invest in our educators and support the work being done by IPS leaders to attract and retain quality teachers in IPS.”

Ohlemiller said Stand identified more than 6,500 supporters for Indianapolis Public School’s tax measures through a canvassing effort in the spring.

The donation will go to Vote Yes for IPS, a political action committee supporting the tax increase.

“It represents a substantial investment from the leading grassroots education group in the city,” said Robert Vane, the lead consultant for Vote Yes for IPS. Vane said the money would be used for a “significant and energetic effort” to reach people in the district with direct mail, neighborhood canvassing, and advertising on media outlets.

The campaign to support two referendums on the ballot in November will likely ramp up in the coming weeks. After months of uncertainty over how much the district would seek, the school board voted last month to ask for $220 million in operating funds over eight years, in addition to $52 million for building improvements. The board settled on that request as part of a compromise with the Indy Chamber, which supports the tax measures, but last week, the group said it had not yet decided whether to actively campaign for the measures.

Compared to other recent campaigns for referendums in Marion County, $100,000 is a massive contribution. The political action committee that supported the referendums in Washington Township raised $45,385 in 2016. Much of that came from small donors, although Central Indiana Building Trades donated $11,000. The Wayne Township campaign raised $14,148 in 2015.

Stand is politically controversial. It often supports innovation schools, which are run in partnership with charter or nonprofit operators, and it lobbies for policies at the state level. The group also backs candidates for Indianapolis Public Schools Board, and it played a role in transforming the race from one where candidates could fund their campaigns with donations from friends and neighbors to one that attracts cash from national heavyweights.

But Stand also does significant organizing work with Indianapolis parents and trains them to advocate for themselves.

Candice Raysor, a mother of a third grader at Ignite Achievement Academy at School 42, said in the statement that the district needs to invest more in teachers.

“As I look at my own child and the teachers that have made an impact, I know we need educators who will make a difference in the lives of children in the district,” Raysor said.

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.