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IPS has second chance to learn playbook, cram for referendum

March 8, 2018

Indianapolis Public Schools is getting a do-over.

The school board’s decision to postpone planned ballot measures asking voters to raise taxes for schools—initially to the tune of nearly $1 billion—gives district leaders the chance to build public support alongside key allies in the business community who pressed for the delay.

But this week’s sudden pullback of a pair of referendums is also a setback, raising questions about why leadership of the city’s largest school district couldn’t get it right the first time.

At a time when backers of such measures would typically be beginning their campaigns by explaining the need and shoring up community support, Indianapolis Public Schools officials were juggling a number of other initiatives and not talking much about the prospect of getting the referendums on the ballot. Then, after the board approved going to voters in May, the expected allies never signed on and critics accused the district of not giving enough details.

Put simply, the school district did not follow the playbook for how to successfully win the hearts of taxpayers.

District officials said backpedaling on the referendums—first to reduce the requests from nearly $1 billion to $725 million then to postpone them—showed responsiveness to community concerns.

“What we haven’t done is engage with our community in the way that we should have prior to announcing that we were doing the referenda,” board member Kelly Bentley said at the meeting Monday.

Going forward, she said, the district needs to do more to ensure that community members, parents, and staff understand how desperately the district needs new revenue.

The slow push toward a May vote was brought to an abrupt halt during a board meeting Monday when the head of the Indy Chamber offered to help the district craft its proposal if it delayed until the November election. The board voted 6-0 to delay the referendums, and now has an important ally promising to help as the district tries to regroup.

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders say that with declining state and federal funding, raising local taxes is the only way they can afford regular raises for teachers, the cost of maintaining buildings, and special education services. But some critics have said the district was not being transparent enough about how the money would be spent. The chamber plans to conduct an analysis of the district’s finances to help determine how much money it must seek in the November election.

When Indianapolis’ largest district announced plans to seek more funding from taxpayers in November, it was not a complete surprise. About a year ago, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told Chalkbeat that the district, after years of running at deficits, would “absolutely” need to pursue a referendum to pay for teacher raises.

In the months after that revelation, however, focus quickly shifted to other priorities — including its fraught decision to close and consolidate high schools. While the board continued regular financial updates at public but poorly attended finance committee meetings, there was little push to explain to the public how bleak the district’s financial future appeared.

Indianapolis Public Schools Chief of Staff Ahmed Young said that to understand the campaign for the referendum, it is important to look at all the other recent changes in the district, including the move to close nearly half the district’s high schools.

Ultimately, he said, the district’s decision to put off the tax measures until November shows it is responding to constituents.

“The most exciting part of what took place last night was the fact that we have this extended period of time to really dive deeper into articulating where the district has been and the impact that the referendums will have on the district for the foreseeable future,” he said Tuesday.

In other districts, successful campaigns to raise tax dollars for schools often start with those deep dives into why the money is needed and how it will be used, with district staff and allies sharing information early and often.

Consultant Steve Klink, who has helped districts with over 40 referendums, said that he could not assess the Indianapolis referendum campaign because he was not familiar with the details. But when he works with districts, he said, they explain to the community why they need more money and assess voter support for tax increases before officially approving ballot measures.

“I call that the mind-numbing data stage, because that’s when you put everything out there,” Klink said. “You go through all the nitty-gritty.”

When Washington Township ran a successful campaign for a referendum in 2016, parent volunteers started organizing about a year before the election, said Stacy Lozer, who co-chaired the political action committee. “You kind of ramp up to a very short period of time, but there was a lot of planning and strategizing that went in behind that,” she said.

Tom King, the co-chair of the political action committee supporting Indianapolis Public Schools bid for more money, said when he was involved with IPS’s successful referendum in 2008, he spent a year campaigning.

Before the school board moved to delay the referendums, King told Chalkbeat that the short timeline the district was working with was a challenge.

“If you’re going to do something like this, it’s always helpful if you’ve got a year lead time to get people out there and get them to see things,” he said. “This is one of those where you’re just going to have to get information out there.”

In the months since the district revealed its bid for more funding, a growing chorus of community members have raised concerns that the district is not providing enough information about such a large potential tax increase. Even some community groups and leaders who are usually allies of the district have been reluctant to back the tax increase.

Before the latest move to delay the referendums, said state Rep. Ed Delaney, a Democrat who represents parts of the school district, said the moribund campaign for the referendum was unlike any he had seen before.

“It’s very, very unusual what is going on,” Delaney said. “This is heartbreaking to me. I wish this institution well.”

Despite the lackluster reception the district’s bid for more money has received so far, Delaney is one of many potential allies for Indianapolis Public Schools. The Indianapolis Urban League had also said it wanted to support the district but was concerned about the potential tax increase.

At the board meeting Monday, Shelley Specchio of MIBOR Realtor Association, which represents Realtors in Central Indiana, said her group would reconsider its opposition to the referendum with more information and more time.

Chamber leaders said it decided to partner with the district in developing a new referendum plan because it had heard concerns from its members about how high the tax increase would be. Instead of opposing the referendums or staying neutral, they offered to work with the district.

“The community does not succeed unless IPS succeeds, and we need to be a partner to help them succeed and achieve their visions for the district,” said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the chamber. “Any risk of a loss in a May referendum wasn’t going to do anybody any good.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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