Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Rosa Vazquez had a point to make, and at its core, it was simple: “We need more.”
“It’s difficult when we attempt to send a student to go have a conversation with a counselor and the counselor is too busy, overwhelmed,” said Vazquez, an English as a new language teacher at Arsenal Technical High School, which she said is struggling to serve students who transferred in when the district closed three other campuses last year. “We need more counselors. Our teachers need smaller class sizes.”
Vazquez was one of five panelists gathered Thursday for a forum hosted by Chalkbeat, WFYI, the Indianapolis Recorder, and the Indianapolis Public Library to discuss two tax measures on the ballot in November aimed at raising more money for the school system. One referendum would raise $220 million to pay for operating expenses. The second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements.
The panel also featured IPS Board President Michael O’Connor, IPS chief financial officer Weston Young, Indy Chamber chief policy officer Mark Fisher, and Purdue University professor Larry DeBoer.
The success or failure of the referendums will have far-reaching implications for the cash-strapped district for years to come, reshaping the education of more than 30,000 of students.
We have five takeaways from the panel.
- Boosting teacher pay is the central issue
Teacher pay is the focal point of the referendum to raise operating funds for Indianapolis Public Schools. On the panel, nearly everyone agreed that the extra money needs to be used to increase teacher salaries.
Vazquez said her colleagues often have to work second jobs to support their families. Low pay also leads many teachers to leave for other districts, and students ultimately suffer from high turnover, she said.
“Our students are important,” Vazquez added. “They do matter. They do deserve a chance. And being an inner city should not be a downfall for them.”
Many teachers in the district still make less because of pay freezes during the recession, and to make up for the difference, Vazquez said the district may need to give dramatic raises of 10 percent or more.
Young also pointed to one reason pay may be lower in Indianapolis Public Schools than in many of the surrounding school systems. Most of the districts in Marion County have successfully passed referendums to increase school funding in recent years, he said.
“It’s hard to compete for wages and retain high quality teachers when everybody around you has increased their cash flow and you haven’t,” he added.
O’Connor said the board is aiming to ensure its teachers are among the highest paid in Indiana. He hopes the referendum funding gets the district close to that point. “We’re committed to making sure the money generated goes to teacher salaries,” he said.
- There are areas of disagreement
How much money to send to innovation schools, which are part of the district but run by outside nonprofit and charter operators, was the most contentious issue at the forum.
The teachers in those schools are not employed by the district, so they would not automatically benefit from a proposed pay raise funded by the referendum. But the district will send some of the money raised to innovation network schools, and many of those schools will also benefit because they receive services, such as special education, from the district.
If the district wins support for the tax measures “traditional public schools with this referendum should be priority,” said Vazquez.
O’Connor acknowledged that the district has limited resources to give schools. He argued that innovation schools are a good strategy that is improving outcomes for students. And, he said, the district is still fully committed to traditional schools in the district.
“We’ll continue to make those investments at the teacher level and at the classroom level,” O’Connor said.
- Even if the referendum passes, the district is still expected to make huge cuts
The $272 million in additional funding the district seeks is substantially lower than the district’s initial requests, which amounted to nearly $1 billion combined. The lower request is the culmination of months of wrangling between the district and Indy Chamber.
The business group became deeply involved in the effort because its members had concerns about the initial request, Fisher said. “There were concerns about the viability of the referendum — whether it would actually pass,” he said. “We did not want to see the referendum fail.”
In part, the district was able to lower its request by making more optimistic projections about future funding, Young said. But for the new, reduced request to work — and for the district to find money for substantial pay raises — Indianapolis Public Schools must make drastic cuts to its expenses. Those could include closing schools and relying on public transportation for high schoolers instead of yellow buses.
Ultimately, the goal of the chamber’s proposal is to improve the quality of the district and set it on a “sustainable fiscal path,” said Fisher. “We can’t continue to have this manage by crisis.”
- Safety is top of mind
Much of the discussion was devoted to the operating referendum, which will help pay for daily expenses such as salaries. But the district is also pursuing a $52 million capital referendum that will be used to pay for building improvements, primarily designed to make schools safer.
In the wake of school shootings like the one in Noblesville, school districts are turning to referendums to raise money for safety improvements, DeBoer said.
“Every time we have an event like in Noblesville it alerts people to the need for safety, and it’s the world that we live in,” he said.
In Indianapolis Public Schools, the referendum would pay for safety improvements including secure entrances, new fire safety systems, and improved emergency communication systems.
Because many of the district’s buildings are more than half a century old, retrofitting is more expensive but it is still essential, said O’Connor. “The vast majority of our capital investment is in safety,” he said.
- Tax referendums may be the new normal for Central Indiana
Hoosier schools have almost exclusively relied on state funding in recent years. State lawmakers capped how much local governments could collect in property taxes in 2010, and those funds can now only go toward things like construction or transportation — not salaries. But voters can decide to override those caps in their communities.
Across Indiana, 60 percent of school districts have never tried a referendum, said DeBoer, who studies referendums. In Marion County and the surrounding suburbs, however, property tax referendums have become the new normal.
“The passage rates have been increasing over the last 10 years,” he said. All the referendums on the ballot in May passed. The economy is improving, district campaigns are improving, and “perhaps the public is coming to accept that is part of … the normal way we fund schools,” he added.