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EDITORIAL: IPS must do a better job selling $725M tax-hike plan

March 30, 2018

You don’t have to live within the Indianapolis Public Schools’ boundaries to have a stake in the outcome of the district’s $725 million in funding referendums.

Forgive us for again trotting out the late Mayor Bill Hudnut’s favorite truism: “You can’t be a suburb of nothing.” But it sums up nicely why every central Indianapolis resident needs to root for the continued improvement of IPS.

The health of the school district, after all, goes a long way toward determining whether neighborhoods are desirable or in decline and losing residents. It’s a sobering reality that, since the 1950s, Center Township, which encompasses most of the district, lost more than half its population—dropping from about 337,000 residents to 143,000.

And we believe the district’s financial pressures are real and severe—caused by a range of factors, including declining state and federal funding, property-tax caps and shrinking enrollment.

Yet voters aren’t pushovers, and if the district expects to raise an extra nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in property taxes over eight years, it is going to have to do a far better job making its case than it has so far.

The IPS board put the referendum plan in motion last December—voting at the time to put two referendums on the ballot that would raise property taxes a total of $936 million over eight years. The massive funding request raised eyebrows, to say the least.

Making matters worse, in the weeks after that vote, the expected full-court press from key constituencies to win approval didn’t materialize.

As State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry put it in February, “This may be the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever approved by anyone.” He said the district had shared “precious few details” about how it would spend the money and urged it to delay a vote until 2019.

With opposition mounting, the IPS board that month scaled back its request by more than $200 million.

The reduced request, while welcomed by some, fanned the perception that the district was bungling the campaign. After all, if $725 million now would suffice, why had it sought $936 million in the first place?

Finally, early this month, the Indy Chamber stepped in and asked the board to delay the referendums until November, and the board agreed. Before then, the chamber will analyze the district’s finances and work with the community to build support.

This wasn’t a case of anti-tax crusaders wanting to kill a tax increase at all costs. Indeed, as Indy Chamber CEO Michael Huber put it the night the IPS board delayed the referendums, “We are under the assumption that the district needs increased financial resources.”

Instead, this was a case of a district’s leadership and board repeatedly misfiring. We hope Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, board President Michael O’Connor and others have learned from the miscues and step up their game. The future of IPS depends on it.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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