down to the wire

Board hedges on Memphis school closing plan during final budget vote

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
From left: Board Chairwoman Teresa Jones, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and board member Scott McCormick

One Memphis school targeted for closure will stay open an extra year, while a second school also may get a reprieve after the school board tweaked and approved Shelby County Schools’ $954 million general fund budget for next year.

The 5-3-1 vote Monday to amend Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s school closing plan means that Northside High School will be shuttered at the end of the 2016-17 school year instead of this year.

Board members also agreed to delay a vote on closing Carver High School until they can examine a community report that outlines alternatives for keeping the 59-year-old downtown-area school open.

The votes came as the board finalized its 2016-17 spending plan, which includes a 3 percent raise for top-tier teachers and a switch to a yet-to-be-determined health insurance plan for employees and retirees.

The approved budget, which includes a $35 million funding gap, means the board will ask the Shelby County Commission to make up the difference, even though several commissioners have previously indicated that’s too tall of an ask. District leaders are scheduled to present their budget to the commission on May 25.

But board member Stephanie Love said the district should ask for even more to avoid the $45 million in cuts included in the approved budget. “Let the County Commission tell us they don’t want to fully fund what we need,” she said. “Let them tell us no.”

Hopson hopes the decision to close two other schools and switch insurance plans demonstrates that the district “is not afraid to make tough decisions.”

“Given the markers of success, and given the tough decisions that we made, [we hope] that the County Commission will find it wise to provide for these kids,” Hopson said after the meeting.

The board had approved closing Northside and Carver last month on a preliminary vote, but shuttering a district-run school requires two votes. With little discussion and no explanation, Chairwoman Teresa Jones moved to amend Hopson’s closing plan for Northside, while board member Mike Kernell moved to delay a decision on Carver.

Northside High School
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Hopson said later that the decision to delay closing Northside was out of “sensitivity” to neighborhoods where community meetings have been held in recent weeks. “While I didn’t necessarily anticipate this, I do think it’s consistent with our board being thoughtful,” he said.

Both Carver and Northside are on Tennessee’s list of priority schools, which are the state’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. Hopson recommended the closures last month as part of a cost-saving and efficiency plan to shutter schools that are under-enrolled and low-performing.

Administrators had estimated that the closings of Northside and Carver would save the district $1.7 million to help bridge the funding gap, but Hopson said the district should be able to make up the difference elsewhere.

As approved, the budget means the district will follow the advice of County Commissioner Eddie Jones, who last week invited the school board to bring all of their needs to the table.

“Before you cut anything, come ask for everything,” Jones said during a community meeting at Carver. “Come ask for what you need. As I’m learning, there’s money available. … It’s not can we do it, but will we do it?”

Jones has suggested that the full $32 million generated by the county’s wheel tax should go toward school operations instead of the current $16 million allocation for capital improvements. Shelby County Schools would get 78 percent of that total, which would be split with other districts in the county.

Jones’ remarks fly in the face of previous comments from other commissioners, who frequently have urged Shelby County Schools to close under-utilized schools.

The closure delays prompted Commissioner David Reaves, who is also a former school board member, to tweet during the meeting:

The 3 percent raises for teachers would apply only to teachers who receive evaluation scores of 3 to 5, but union representatives balked at that condition.

“The cost of living has had an impact on every teacher in the system, not certain ones,” said Keith Williams, executive director of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association.

Association president Patricia Scarborough added that the evaluation system is “flawed.”

It’s still unclear how many jobs will be lost under the approved budget.

The public got its first chance to review the full budget three days before approval when district leaders published it online Friday evening. The highlights were presented during school board budget review sessions during the last six weeks, but teacher raises were proposed less than a week before approval.

“This is the most distressing budget process I’ve seen,” Williams said. “It has been piecemeal out to the public.”

The $35 million spending gap is just $1 million less than the gap that the district started out with in its initial budget presentation to the board last month.

Though changes to benefits have not been finalized, the proposed plan that would begin Jan. 1 includes retirees increasing their cost share from 30 to 50 percent. Yvonne Acey, president-elect of the Shelby County Retired Teachers Association, said the impact on retirees with fixed incomes would be “tremendous.”

“Our incomes are low; our prescriptions are high,” she said. “We don’t want any changes.”

Administrators said the planned switch would save up to $10 million, which is included in the approved budget.

School Finance

IPS board votes to ask taxpayers for $315 million, reject the chamber’s plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indianapolis Public Schools officials voted Tuesday to ask taxpayers for $315 million over eight years to help close its budget gap — an amount that’s less than half the district’s initial proposal but is still high enough to draw skepticism from a local business group.

The school board pledged to continue discussions in the next week with the Indy Chamber, which released an alternative proposal last week calling for massive spending cuts and a significantly smaller tax increase. The school board rejected the proposal as unrealistic and instead voted to add a much larger tax measure to the November ballot.

If the school board and the chamber come to a different agreement before the July 24 meeting, the board can change the request for more taxpayer money before it goes to voters. Some board members, however, were dubious that they would be able to find common ground.

“While I appreciate the fact that we want to continue to negotiate, I’m pretty sure that I’m at rock bottom now,” said school board member Kelly Bentley. “That initial proposal by the chamber is, unfortunately in my mind, it’s insulting. It’s insulting to our children, and to our neighborhoods, and to our families.”

Chamber leaders, whose support is considered important to the referendum passing, were skeptical about the dollar amount. In a press release, the group said the district was “taking another step towards seeking a double-digit tax increase.”

“We’re concerned that our numbers are so divergent,” said chamber president and CEO Michael Huber in the statement. “We need to study the assumptions behind the $318 million request; clearly the tax impact is significant and the task of winning voter support will be challenging.”

During the board meeting, which lasted more than two hours, district leaders discussed why schools need more money and why the chamber report is unrealistic. They also took comments from community members who were largely supportive of the tax increase.

Joe Ignatius, who mentors students through 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, said that he has seen the benefits of more funding from referendums in other communities.

“This should be a no brainer, to invest in our future for the students,” Ignatius said. “Don’t think about the immediate impact of the dollars that may come out of your pocket but more the long-term impact.”

If the district goes forward with its plan, and voters approve the tax increase, the school system would get as much as $39.4 million more per year for eight years. A family with a home at the district’s median value — $75,300 — would pay about $3.90 more per month in property taxes. (Since the initial proposal, the district reduced the median home value used in calculations on the advice of a consultant.)

The district plan comes on the heels of months of uncertainty. After the school board abandoned its initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion for operating expenses and construction, district officials spent weeks working with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly proposal. Last month, the board approved a separate referendum to ask taxpayers for about $52 million for school renovations, particularly school safety features.

But the groups came to different conclusions about how much money the district needs for operating expenses.

The chamber released an analysis last week that called for $477 million in cuts, including eliminating busing for high school students, reducing the number of teachers, closing schools, and cutting central office staff. The recommendation also included a $100 million tax increase to fund 16 percent raises for teachers.

District officials, however, say the cuts proposed by the chamber are too aggressive and cannot be accomplished as quickly as the group wants. The administration and board members spent nearly an hour of the meeting Tuesday discussing the chamber plan, why they believe it’s methodology is wrong, and the devastating consequences they say it would have on schools.

Even if the $315 million plan proposed by the district passes, it will come with some sacrifices compared to the initial plan. Those cuts could include: reduced transportation for magnet schools, field trips, and after school activities; school closings; increased benefits costs for employees; and smaller pay increases for teachers and employees.

The district did not make a specific commitment to how much teacher pay would increase if the amount asked for in the referendum is approved, but Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the funds would pay for consistent raises.

“We would be at least addressing inflationary increases and cost of living, but we hope that we can be higher than that,” said Ferebee. “It would depend a lot on what we are able to realize in savings.”

The school board’s decision to rebuff the chamber’s recommendation puts the district in a difficult position. The chamber has no official role in determining the amount of the referendum, but it could be a politically powerful ally.

Last week, Al Hubbard, an influential philanthropist and businessman who provided major funding for the chamber analysis, said that if the district seeks more money than the group recommended, he would oppose the referendum.

The total tax increase would vary for each homeowner within district boundaries. The operating increase would raise taxes by up to $0.28 for every $100 of assessed property value, while the construction increase would raise taxes by up to $0.03 per $100 of assessed property value.

On school finance

Facing tax opposition, Indianapolis leaders may settle for less than schools need

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One day before the Indianapolis Public Schools Board is expected to approve a ballot measure to ask taxpayers for more funding, district officials appealed to a small group of community members for support.

Fewer than 40 people, including district staff, gathered Monday night at the New Era Church to hear from leaders about the need for more school funding. School board members plan to vote Tuesday on whether to ask voters to approve a tax hike to fund operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, in the November election. But just how much money they will seek is unknown.

The crowd at New Era was largely supportive of plans to raise more money for district schools, and at moments people appeared wistful that the district had abandoned an early plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, which one person described as a “dream.”

Martha Malinski, a parent at School 91 and a recent transplant from Minneapolis, said the city appears to have a “lack of investment” in education.

“Is the money that you are asking for enough?” she asked.

Whatever amount the district eventually seeks is likely to be dramatically scaled down from the first proposal. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has spent more than seven months grappling with the reality that many Indianapolis political leaders and taxpayers don’t have the stomach for the tax increase the district initially sought.

“We are trying to balance what’s too much in terms of tax burden with the need for our students,” said Ferebee, who also raised the possibility that the district might return to taxpayers for more money if the first referendum does not raise enough. “If we don’t invest in our young people now, what are the consequences and what do we have to pay later?”

After withdrawing their initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, district officials spent months working with the Indy Chamber to analyze Indianapolis Public Schools finances and find areas to trim in an effort to reduce the potential tax increase. But the district and chamber are at odds over how aggressive the cuts should be.

Last week, the chamber released a voluminous list of cuts the group says could save the school system $477 million over eight years. They include reducing the number of teachers, eliminating busing for high schoolers, and closing schools. The chamber has paired those cuts with a proposal for a referendum to increase school funding by $100 million, which it says could raise teacher salaries by 16 percent.

District officials, however, say the timeline for the cuts proposed by the chamber is not realistic. The analysis mostly includes strategies suggested by the district, said Ferebee. But steps like redistricting and closing schools, for example, can take many months.

“Where we are apart is the pace, the cadence and how aggressive the approach is with realizing those savings,” he said.

Not everyone at the meeting was supportive of the administration. Tim Stark, a teacher from George Washington High School, asked the superintendent not to work with charter high school partners until the district’s traditional high schools are fully enrolled. But Stark said he is still supportive of increasing funding for the district. “It is really important for IPS to get the funds,” he said.

The chamber has no explicit authority over the tax increase but it has the political sway to play an influential role in whether it passes. As a result, Indianapolis Public Schools officials are working to come to an agreement that will get that chamber’s support.

A separate measure to fund building improvements was announced by the district in June and incorporated into the chamber plan. That tax increase would raise $52 million for building improvements, primarily focused on safety. That’s about one-quarter of the initial proposal.