IPS rolls out scaled-back tax request to fund building renovations

The state’s largest school district is likely to ask voter for $52 million to fund building improvements, much of which district leaders say are essential to student safety. The proposed request—which comes three months after the district abruptly withdrew referendums from the May ballot—is the first piece of a new plan to increase school funding.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials say nearly $41 million in funding will increase safety with improvements such as new lighting, classroom locks, and fire sprinklers. Another $11 million will pay for other building improvements. District officials expect to release information about a second referendum that would raise funds for operating expenses, such as teacher pay, in late June or early July. That request is likely to be significantly more costly.

The $52 million funding request represents only about one-quarter of the district’s initial proposal, and the money, which would be spread across 62 campuses and the district police, would cover only a fraction of the needs the administration identified. Many of those buildings are old, and it has been nearly a decade since voters approved a referendum to fund updates. The measure would increase taxes by $1.33 per month for taxpayers with houses at the district’s median value — $123,500.

This is district’s third proposed amount in less than a year since it decided to pursue funding referendums. The administration revealed plans last November to seek nearly $1 billion from voters in two May referendums, including about $200 million in improvements to school buildings. But when the measures drew criticism and failed to win significant support from community leaders, the school board voted to reduce the proposed request by $211 million.

In early March, the district decided to delay the referendums from May until November to give it time to revise the proposal.

In order to cut the cost from about $200 million to about $52 million in the construction referendum, the district plans to significantly cut proposed building improvements, said Ahmed Young, chief of staff for the district. Those cuts include planned spending on improving energy efficiency, deferred maintenance, and technology upgrades, he said.

The administration substantially cut the capital request to leave room to ask for more money for operating expenses without putting too large a burden on taxpayers, said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

“We are just in a tough place of trying to manage priorities,” Ferebee said.

One area where the district would still be making significant investments is school safety, Young said. That’s a particular priority because of recent  school shooting incidents. 

The district removed plans to update playgrounds so they are accessible for children with disabilities. That sacrifice raised particular concerns for some board members. Board member Mary Ann Sullivan asked the district to find out how many nearby districts have playgrounds that are not accessible.

“At some point we have to stop having some of our kids not have the same opportunities as other students,” she said.

The hearing Monday, a first step in the process of getting the measure on the ballot, was only about raising money for building improvements. The details on the projects at each campus are available here.

Several board members raised concerns about the long-term impact of reducing the request.

“The needs are still there,” said board member Kelly Bentley. “We are kicking the can down the road on deferred maintenance.”

The proposal would increase taxes for property owners in the district boundaries by as much as 3 cents per $100 of assessed value. That’s down from the initial request, which would’ve cost taxpayer as much as 14 cents per $100 of assessed value.

The board will hold another public hearing at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the central office, 120 E. Walnut St. If the school board approves the proposal at that meeting, the measure is expected to appear on the November ballot. That gives supporters five months to make the case to voters that they should increase their property taxes to support public schools.

The first effort to win support for a referendum was hampered in part by a sluggish campaign. Instead of building support for a potential referendum, district leaders spent months juggling other initiatives. The expected allies never signed on, and critics accused the district of not providing enough details.

Ultimately, the district’s campaign fizzled before voters cast their ballots. The Indy Chamber swooped in, offering to help with financial analysis and building community support if the district postponed the vote until November.

Since then, the district rolled out a plan to cut about $21 million from its $269 million general fund budget for 2018-19, according to a preliminary budget document. Those cuts are likely just the beginning if IPS is not able to find other savings or get more money from taxpayers.

Referendums to increase property taxes have become common in recent years. State lawmakers capped property taxes in 2010, and schools can only use that money for things like construction or transportation—not salaries. But voters can decide to override those caps in their communities. This May, voters across Indiana approved referendums to increase school funding. All 11 measures on the ballot were approved, including one for Indianapolis’ Warren Township Schools.

Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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