cash flow

Election 2018: In a sweeping victory for IPS, voters approve tax hikes to raise $272 million for schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang/Chalkbeat
Indianapolis Public Schools is asking for voters to approve two tax measures to raise an additional $272 million.

Voters overwhelmingly opted Tuesday to raise property taxes — a move that will boost funding for Indianapolis Public Schools by up to $272 million. The decision is a lifeline for the cash-strapped district.

Yes votes on two tax referendums marked the conclusion of a rocky year-long campaign. The results mean the state’s largest district will get an influx of cash to help pay for teacher salaries and building improvements.

The extra funding will be key to shaping the future of the district, which is running a significant budget deficit. Leaders have said the referendum funds are essential to keeping pay competitive with nearby districts. Even with the new money, the district is expected to make substantial cuts to its budget, including potentially closing underutilized schools. IPS currently serves about 30,000 students and employs about 3,600 educators and support staff.

As of 9:40 p.m., with 540 out of 600 precincts counted, 71 percent of voters are supporting the referendum to raise $220 million over eight years for the district’s operating expenses, including teacher pay. Over 75 percent of voters are supporting a second measure to raise $52 million for improvements to school buildings. That money will primarily fund safety upgrades, such as exterior lighting, fire sprinklers, and secure entrances.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said Tuesday evening he was “excited and extremely grateful that voters decided to make this investment in the young people of Indianapolis Public Schools.”

“This is a clear win for our children,” he added. “I think it positions us well to continue to be competitive with teacher compensation.”

Read: IPS critics poised to defeat incumbents in school board shakeup

Read: Track the IPS board races and referendums

The vote follows a sustained effort to win local voters’ support. The district first announced plans to seek a funding boost of almost $1 billion nearly a year ago. But when little support materialized and some community leaders balked at the high price tag, the district delayed the vote and then reduced the request. Indianapolis Public Schools then partnered with the local chamber of commerce to craft a lower, more politically palatable request. The two measures on the ballot had backing from a wide range of community groups, and no organized opposition emerged.

“We won as a community,” said IPS board president Michael O’Connor. “It was a true compromise…. We created a situation where our kids are going to win.”

Chelsea Koehring, a proponent of the measure and a parent of two children in Indianapolis Public Schools, said she was “thrilled” by the results.

She said that while the new funding is “not nearly enough,” she’s hoping that “just giving teachers the small raises that we can give them is going to be enough to encourage them to stick it out a little bit longer.”

More than 45,000 voters have weighed in on the referendums in the tallies so far. Votes from the remaining 60 precincts, in addition to about 50,000 absentee ballots, were expected to be counted Wednesday morning.

At the Indianapolis Public Schools’ administration building, which served as a polling location for downtown dwellers, signs outside urged voters to “Vote Yes for IPS,” in support of the district’s two referendums. Campaign workers manned the doors to pass out flyers, asking if voters had made up their minds yet about school board candidates.

Some voters said they weren’t very familiar with the district’s requests for tax increases, but they supported the extra funding for the school system.

“It wasn’t a crazy amount, what they’re asking for, if they’re going to use it for something worthwhile — for education,” said José Casanovas. “If they’re not going to waste it, then sure.”

Across town at School 42, Kimberly Mooney, who has two children at Herron High School, said that she voted for the referendums in part because she thinks more funding will help the low-performing district improve.

“They do have some good teachers,” she said, “but I think if you want to keep those teachers that we have, and maybe even get more teachers in, they need to fund the schools.”

Nina Gant, who voted at the recently shuttered John Marshall school building, said she hopes the infusion of capital will help schools make improvements to dilapidated buildings and hire better teachers. “We want them to do better,” she said.

In a statement Monday, Indianapolis Urban League President Tony Mason said the final proposal protected both taxpayers and the academic needs of schools.

“The $220 million proposal does not address all of the fiscal issues that IPS is facing, but it does help the district compete better with the townships for the best educators — we need strong principals to lead high-performing schools, and great teachers to inspire and educate our children,” Mason said. “And the cost to the average homeowner is less than $5 a month, with every dollar benefiting our students.”

But some community members said they were reluctant to support the measures because they were concerned about the financial transparency of Ferebee’s administration. The district’s growing partnerships with charter schools and the closure of three high schools have helped spur a growing movement against the administration.

Former IPS board member Gayle Cosby, a frequent skeptic of the administration, wrote on her blog last month that she would not support the referendums because she believes the money would be misused.

“Under Dr. Ferebee’s leadership, IPS has become a willing partner in its own demise — the privatization of the district through the portfolio school model that is now being deployed,” she wrote, referring to a strategy that involves districts partnering with charter schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools last sought a tax increase in 2008, which ultimately passed, for building improvements such as installing air conditioning in schools. Indiana districts have pursued more than 175 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 63 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Rhondalyn Cornett, the president of the district teachers union, said the results show voters support the district and value good teachers.

“They are trusting that IPS is going to do what’s right,” she said. “They see we need help.”

Decision day

A state board decision on two long-struggling Pueblo schools could affect the entire district

PHOTO: Andrea Chu/Getty Images

A year after running out of chances to improve on their own, two Pueblo middle schools will be making a return appearance in front of the State Board of Education this week.

Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy of Innovation have spent the last eight years on a watch list for low-performing schools. A year ago, the state board ordered them along with five school districts and 10 other schools to craft plans to improve — and warned them that too little progress could lead to sharper consequences in the future. It was the first time state regulators faced these decisions under Colorado’s school accountability system.

Many of the schools and districts on the state watchlist have managed to improve enough to avoid further intervention, including Bessemer Elementary, also in Pueblo City Schools.

But even after working with a nonprofit group to improve the quality of teaching, the two schools failed to advance on Colorado’s school rating system, which is largely based on performance on standardized tests. Their test scores left Heroes at the second lowest rating, where it has been for several years, and Risley on “turnaround,” the lowest possible rating, despite some improvement in some subject areas and grade levels.

On Wednesday, state board members will hold a hearing on the future of Heroes and Risley— along with the entire Adams 14 district and its high school. They’ll be taking into account recommendations from independent reviewers who visited the schools, the Pueblo district, students and their families, and advocates who have been lobbying throughout the process.

If the board members take the same approach they did last year, they’re likely to let the schools continue with “innovation” status, with some additional external management. But some state board members have expressed frustration with the pace of change, and they have more drastic options available to them, including closure or turning low-performing schools into charters.

At least in the case of Risley, the recommendation to largely stay the course comes despite grave concerns about the school. The evaluators gave a damning report, rating its leadership “not effective” at implementing change or even having the capacity to benefit from the help of an external partner.

The evaluators described chaotic classrooms in which students slept at their desks or openly played on their phones. In classrooms in which teachers were able to engage students, too many of them were “doing the cognitive work” for the students rather than leading them in real learning, they said.

The school is using too many new programs at once without enough training for teachers, with the result that most of them were not being implemented as intended, the evaluators said, and there isn’t enough coordination. In one example, the school had adopted new reading and math curriculum designed for 90-minute blocks, but the school’s schedule only allows for 75-minute periods.

But closing the school or turning it over to a charter organization would be worse options, evaluators said.

Conversion to a charter school would be divisive and unlikely to better serve students, they said, and there aren’t any nearby schools that could absorb the students if Risley were to close. “There are no other viable options for students that would likely lead to better outcomes,” the evaluators wrote.

What’s more, they wrote, the school serves as an “anchor” to the community — a view that community members expressed in comments submitted to the state board. Parents described using the health clinic associated with the school or getting food from the food pantry, as well as the pride their children felt in their sports teams, which provide positive and structured activities after school.

“As a parent, I feel better after each time I volunteer,” one mother wrote. “My daughter is a cheerleader here and I enjoy going to all her games and support her school and represent red and black and showing bear pride. I am looking forward to my son attending here in years to come.”

In several letters, students said they were having to take so many tests as part of the turnaround process that they were bored and stressed out and did not want to come to school.

“If we’re testing every month, when the real test comes around, we get tired of it and guess or click through,” one eighth-grade student said. “They’re stressing us out, and we don’t really need them. I understand you guys need to see where we are, but this many tests are not helping any of us.”

The state review panel assessment of Heroes was more positive, even as evaluators noted ongoing problems and recommended an additional external partner to help manage the school, not just provide instructional support.

“The school needs more time to see the full benefits of participation in the Innovation Zone, but implementation thus far has proven effective,” they wrote. “Leadership is developing and beginning to create positive change.”

At Heroes, evaluators did not recommend conversion to a charter school in part because the school serves a high population of students with disabilities. The middle school is also part of a K-8 school with one principal, and disentangling the elementary and middle school would have financial implications for both.

In response to written questions from the State Board of Education, Pueblo district officials said converting both schools to charters would have a serious financial impact on the entire school system. The district, which already faces declining enrollment and operates on a four-day week while staring down a $785 million maintenance backlog for its aging buildings, would lose almost $5 million a year in state funding if Risley and Heroes students all went to charter schools. The school district would also lose one of its newer buildings if Risley converted to a charter.

The opposition to a charter conversion is about more than money. In a letter, Barb Clementi, vice president of the school board in Pueblo, pointed to the example of a struggling school that was turned into a magnet school. While it has a good rating, it now serves a student population that is almost entirely different, and the former students continue to struggle in their new schools. Converting Risley or Heroes to charters runs the same risk, she said.

Risley and Heroes are part of an innovation zone that provides schools more flexibility but also allows teachers and administrators to work together. While the state review panel said both schools need to take more advantage of the zone, other Pueblo schools have come off the state watchlist using the innovation approach.

“I urge you to consider the bigger picture of our entire Pueblo community and school system when making decisions,” Clementi wrote. “These two middle school have made progress and deserve the time and opportunity to continue their good work with perhaps additional partnership support.”

Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the teachers union, said both schools have suffered from a lack of consistent leadership and significant teacher turnover, an issue that evaluators noted as well. She said any plan to improve the schools needs to take seriously the issue not just of training teachers but keeping them.

Some teachers and parents have asked for the schools to be turned into “community schools,” though letters to the state board indicate this approach has some serious skeptics as well.

“There is a lot of buy-in and a lot of people are looking to this model as a way to engage authentically with our community and dig in and find those root causes that are holding students back,” said Robert Donovan, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Risley and member of the Pueblo Education Coalition.

Community schools incorporate a wide range of services for students and their families, ranging from meals, health clinics, and laundry service to English classes and job training. These schools work to engage parents in their children’s education, and in their most ideal version, parents play a big role in shaping educational decisions.

Teachers unions have been strong advocates for community schools in response to persistent low test scores, including in Pueblo and Adams 14. They argue that community schools address the social and economic problems that make it hard for students to succeed at school. Research on the academic impact of this approach is mixed.

More than 97 percent of Risley students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, compared to 80 percent for the district as a whole. Nearly 80 percent of Heroes students are from low-income families.

“The concerns expressed by our community fall into several areas, including authentic parent and community engagement, culturally relevant curriculum, a focus on high-quality teaching and learning, positive discipline practices, and mental health supports, to name a few,” reads the online petition. “The most powerful voices speaking about what is needed were, in fact, students. Based on this engagement, a community schools model … is the best fit for what we need and want in Pueblo.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, district officials will lay out their plans in more detail — they declined to talk to us before the meeting — and face tough questions from state board members, who have until Thursday to render a decision on the two Pueblo schools and the Adams 14 district, which could face significant loss of control.

This week’s decisions will mark a test of how the state board will deal with struggling schools going forward. Pueblo City Schools and Adams 14 have both described a process for finding additional outside partners if that’s what the state board orders, but it’s not entirely clear what that will look like on the ground.

And then it will fall back to principals, teachers, parents, and students to do the work.


Adams 14 board rejects new KIPP charter school in district

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics Lion."

KIPP, the national charter school network, will not open a new school in the Adams 14 school district after board members voted against the network’s application Tuesday night.

It was a unanimous decision in which two board members who explained their thinking said the district’s situation with the state weighed heavily on their votes.

“Adams 14 is not in a position right now to be a proper authorizer,” said board member Dominick Moreno, who is also a state senator. “We have our own struggles. To add another school into the mix of responsibilities is tough.”

Board member Bill Hyde said he believes the district’s problems can be solved without resorting to using charter schools.

“It’s not just about this particular charter school application,” Hyde said. “It goes to a bigger issue as to what we as a community want in terms of a school system.”

On Wednesday, district officials will explain their plans for improving student performance to the State Board of Education, whose members have the authority to order external management of the district or more drastic improvement efforts. The district has spent eight years on a watchlist for low-performing schools, and the board’s reluctance to offer a new high-performing charter option for students will likely be part of the discussion with state regulators.

KIPP officials have wanted to expand outside of Denver, following some of their students, a majority of whom come from low-income families. As housing prices rise in Denver, many working class families have moved to more affordable suburbs like Commerce City, where the Adams 14 district is based. This summer, KIPP submitted an application to open a preschool through 12th-grade campus in the district.

The district had to hire a consultant to quickly put together a review process for the application and to educate the board about how charter schools operate in Colorado. Superintendent Javier Abrego then ignored staff advice based on their review, and instead asked the school board to reject the school, citing philosophical concerns with charter schools.

KIPP leaders had the backing of several parents who live in the district and send their children to KIPP schools in Denver, and of other district parents who wanted a new school option nearby. Tensions rose between parents who were in favor and teachers who were opposed.

KIPP officials said they are planning to appeal the decision to the state.

“Families in the community have been advocating for a new public school option for their students, and tonight’s vote is a setback for the families and community members who are fighting to provide an education that is responsive and accountable to their students,” said Kimberlee Sia, CEO of KIPP Colorado Schools. “We plan to appeal this decision, and we will continue our efforts to open a new public school option for Adams 14 families.”

KIPP’s charter school application had been a frequent topic for public comment at board meetings for months. Tuesday, there were fewer people in the room and only two people spoke about KIPP, both asking the board to reject the application. Teachers who are union leaders sat near the front of the room and nodded in approval as the board members made their decision.

Community advocates in the room criticized the decision. Transforming Education Now, a parent advocacy nonprofit that supports school choice, had been working with parents who support KIPP.

“Kids in Adams 14 will suffer yet again because this district has chosen to put adult needs and politics before their learning,” the organization said in a tweet.