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.”

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.