With less than two months until Election Day, the effort to pass two referendums to increase funding for Indianapolis Public Schools is gaining momentum.
Almost every day, campaign workers are fanning out across Indianapolis to seek support from voters. And Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is stopping by community meetings across the district to make his case that the district needs taxpayers’ help.
This multi-pronged approach illustrates how high the stakes are for the district, which aims to raise $272 million to prevent an even more dire financial situation.
The district first announced plans to ask voters for nearly $1 billion from taxpayers 10 months ago. Since then, the request was cut down, then the vote was delayed to rally more support. The district ultimately came to a final reduced request, which appears to be more palatable to community leaders and has won the support of the Indy Chamber. There is no organized opposition to the referendums, and a previous critic, the MIBOR Realtor Association, now supports them.
But the district ultimately needs the support of voters in addition to power brokers. The key to a successful referendum campaign is reaching out to both hyper-engaged voters and those who are less tuned in to local issues, said Andrew Downs, an associate professor of political science at Purdue University Fort Wayne.
When Ferebee presented last Tuesday to the Rotary Club of Indianapolis, for example, he was reaching members of the community who will likely tell friends and neighbors about the referendums, said Downs.
“They’re voters who will reach out to other people,” he said. “They are voters who typically have a network that will be activated in this case in support of the referendums.”
During the campaign for the planned May referendums, district leaders were juggling other initiatives that drew attention from the tax measures. But Ferebee is now front and center in the effort to win over voters. In a crowded banquet hall last week, Ferebee made the case for increasing funding to a group of Rotarians who appeared largely sympathetic. His low-key jokes drew friendly laughter. But the core of his argument was that the district needs more money to pay for safety improvements at schools and increase teacher pay.
When teacher pay is low, Ferebee said, the district struggles to retain and recruit teachers. It’s forced to rely on substitutes, and students suffer. “We know that our educators are so impactful in our lives,” he said. “We’ve got to do better with compensating them accordingly.”
The hard-won endorsement of the chamber has also gotten some voters’ attention. Tom Schneider, who works for Alpha Tau Omega National Fraternity, did not closely follow the referendums in the early months of the campaign. But as a chamber member, Schneider has learned more about it recently, and he has become an advocate.
“I’m really glad the chamber and the school district got together, they talked about it, and they figured out something that would work,” said Schneider, who rents downtown.
However, after months of political jockeying over the price tag, both behind closed doors and in the media, some voters have concerns over how much the request has changed and whether the district has shown that it needs the money.
Jefferson Shreve, a Republican on the Indianapolis City-County Council, said that even the reduced request is a significant amount of money.
Shreve was appointed to fill a vacancy on the council just last week, and he said he will continue to learn more about the referendums. But Indianapolis Public Schools leaders need to show how they arrived at the final request and how they will use the money.
“If you’re a citizen, and you’re just trying to keep up with this from the sidelines, the number is jumping around by hundreds of millions of bucks,” said Shreve in a phone interview last week. “That just doesn’t instill a whole lot of confidence.”
Reaching people who aren’t involved in groups like Rotary, such as low-income voters who work hourly wage jobs or busy parents of young children, takes other campaign tactics, said Downs, the political scientist.
The Indianapolis effort will include radio ads and direct mail, organizers say. The campaign is also relying on door-to-door canvassing, which the group Stand for Children Indiana has already begun. On a Friday afternoon in early September, three canvassers from the group traversed a neighborhood near Crown Hill Cemetery, before their day was cut short by torrential rain.
When a campaign worker knocked on Michael Bateman’s door, his Maltese Shih Tzu burst into high pitched barks. Bateman, for his part, was friendly if skeptical as he stood on the porch in the misty rain.
Lexus Balanzar got straight to the point: Would Bateman be willing to increase his own property taxes to raise money for school security and higher pay for teachers? The tax hike would cost just $3 more per month for homes at the district’s median value, she said.
The taxes on his home were already unaffordable, Bateman, an Indianapolis public school parent and alumnus, said with a dry laugh. “But if it’s for the teachers raises—if we can guarantee that they are for the raises, yeah.”
It’s an argument that could have broad appeal. A recent poll from Ipsos/USA Today found that 59 percent of Americans do not believe teachers are paid fairly, and even more say teachers spend too much of their own money on supplies.
Most of the year, Stand works directly with parents by training them to advocate for their children. But when election season comes around, the group takes on another, controversial role. The local branch of a national organization, Stand has been influential in helping elect school board members who favor partnerships with charter school.
Vote Yes for IPS, a political action committee supporting the referendums, is leaning on Stand for canvassing because the group has roots in the community, said Robert Vane, the lead consultant for the PAC. “Quite frankly, it would be political malpractice not to partner with them when appropriate,” he said.
When it comes to the referendums, Stand’s support could prove pivotal to success. In addition to canvassing, Stand donated $100,000 to Vote Yes for IPS. Stand officials declined to say how much the group is spending on canvassing, but the group said that its spending would be included on the Vote Yes for IPS financial disclosures.
The group has about 20 full-time, paid canvassers across Indianapolis, said Joel Williams, the Stand field director. The canvassers will continue door knocking and performing voter outreach until Election Day.
“We work as much as we humanly can,” Williams added.
Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.