UPDATE: Indianapolis Public Schools again scales back referendum to win chamber support

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To strike a bargain with a politically powerful ally, Indianapolis Public Schools leaders voted Tuesday night to once again reduce the amount of funding the district will request from taxpayers in a referendum in November's election.

The new request will amount to $220 million over eight years, said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the Indy Chamber. And this time, the proposal will be supported by the business group, a factor that could play a pivotal role in helping the district win voter support.

The school board approved the new amount 5-0 at a meeting Tuesday night. The operating referendum will appear on the November ballot with an additional tax measure to raise $52 million for building improvements.

The proposed request comes after a week of intense discussions between the district and the chamber, which threatened to oppose the district’s operating referendum. Chamber officials had presented a plan to ask taxpayers for $100 million along with massive cuts that they said would make IPS operate more efficiently. The district then voted for a $315 million plan, saying it was the bare minimum needed to serve students.

District leaders have been collaborating with the chamber for more than four months to craft a slimmed down request after their first proposal garnered little community or business support. The agreement likely to be approved Tuesday represents a compromise between the chamber’s plan and the district’s request.

The $220 million request that the groups settled on still calls for extensive cuts, but allows for a slower process for school closings, a longer phase-in of transportation changes, and a slower pace for reducing the number of teachers, according to the chamber. Fisher said it would also include significant raises for teachers.

“We are going to be offering our full-throated support—our full support for the referendum,” Fisher said. “Hopefully we will be able to build a broader community consensus on the increased funding for IPS.”

The chamber has not yet determined whether to financially support the referendum campaign, but the group will vocally back the tax measure, Fisher said.

The agreement entwines the district with the chamber for the long haul. The business group will help raise private funds for two staff members who would be dedicated to pushing for sweeping changes that the chamber recommended in a report earlier this month, Fisher said. Those cuts include closing schools, eliminating busing for high school students, and reducing the number of teachers.

“Making sure that they are implementing at an appropriate level and speed is going to be key,” said Fisher.

The new plan is less than a third of the size of the initial proposal that the district made seven months ago, which would have raised $736 million over eight years for operating expenses. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said last week that the district may need to return to voters for more money if the first request does not raise enough.

But while district officials clearly support a larger request, there has been significant pressure for them to come to an agreement with the chamber.

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

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