‘Everything is on the table’ as IPS addresses enrollment decline, too many schools

Indianapolis Public Schools has too few students for the number of buildings in the district. A dozen of those facilities in use are in poor or worse condition, district leaders say.

Nearly $500 million in improvements, repairs and other deferred maintenance is needed to fix those and other school buildings, according to a recent analysis the district commissioned. The analysis also found the district has 18,500 open seats across IPS-owned buildings.

These challenges come as the district faces impending annual deficits and seeks to stabilize enrollment and improve academics.

The fiscal pressures raise the question of whether district leaders will consider closing schools—an option used recently to address a shrinking enrollment of secondary grades. Closure can provide some benefits, such as fewer operational and maintenance fees and the potential to sell buildings for cash.

Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said no decisions have been made yet on how to address the buildings.

“I think people should know that everything is on the table,” Johnson told WFYI last week. “But that doesn’t mean only closure is on the table. That means we could consider closures. We could consider consolidations; we could consider new buildings–which I think there’s certainly evidence that we need some new buildings; we could consider renovating.”

The district is asking for parent and community feedback on what changes the district should make as it continues a planning process, branded as “rebuilding stronger.” IPS is holding public meetings over the next three months to address academic achievement gaps, effective and efficient use of buildings and budgetary concerns.

The IPS administration is expected to present a “reorganization plan” to the Board of School Commissioners in October.

IPS started the yearlong initiative last year after Johnson announced the district’s budget would go into red unless widespread changes are made. The district now predicts a deficit starting in 2023 that could grow to $25 million annually by 2027.

“Resources are finite,” Johnson said during a February meeting. “We need to be really smart about the resources we have and maximize them to make sure they’re having the best effect and impact on our students and families.”

School buildings in poor condition

A consulting firm was hired to study the district’s facilities. The reports the firm produced, which were estimated to cost more than $600,000 in total, are to “provide specific recommendations and key observations leading to the most effective use of IPS facilities.” IPS has not released the full reports prepared by Florida-based MGT Group.

Buildings were given a composite score based on physical conditions–such as roofs and HVAC systems, ability to support learning, technology infrastructure–and exterior conditions, such as fencing and playgrounds.

According to parts of the study made public, 15 of 67 IPS school buildings are in poor or worse condition, including three buildings that IPS has already closed.

Out of the 12 still operational buildings in poor or unsatisfactory condition, 11 are elementary schools. Joyce Kilmer School 69, the elementary school recently approved for closure, was rated with the worst overall physical and learning-environment condition out of all district schools.

Repairing those schools would cost more than $465 million to bring all buildings up to “a condition of good or better,” said Shareyna Chang, executive director of portfolio strategy for IPS. That’s roughly the equivalent to the district’s annual operating budget.

The Indy Chamber sought to address the district’s building utilization problem in 2018 when it made an agreement with IPS regarding the proposed property-tax referendum. The chamber supported the referendum—once the amount sought was reduced—in exchange for IPS promising to close nearly a dozen schools. The agreement ended last year.

Enrollment decline

Facility usage is an ongoing concern.

Throughout the 1970s, district enrollment drastically declined from a high of 109,000 students. As a result, dozens of buildings were sold or repurposed.

In recent years, enrollment ticked up due in part to charter schools partnering with the district. But enrollment has yet to reach the levels of 2006, when about 37,500 students were enrolled in district-controlled schools.

In 2017, the district closed three high schools and one middle school due to a decades-long decline in secondary students. In 2020, Thomas Carr Howe Community High School was shuttered after the state ended intervention of the school and returned it to district control. Last week, the school board approved the closure of Joyce Kilmer School 69, a northeast-side elementary, this summer.

Today, IPS serves around 31,300 students. Of those, 28,100 students—a 22 percent decrease from 2006—attend class at an IPS-owned building. This total includes students enrolled at charter schools operated at an IPS facility but managed independently within the district.

District officials are concerned about the shrinking number of students attending traditional IPS schools directly run by the district – predominantly neighborhood schools where students are assigned to attend based on their home address. That is a primary factor in the impending deficit.

“And because we are still sort of servicing those schools at the same level, then it can continue to exacerbate our funding and our financial outlook,” Johnson said.

What is the rebuilding stronger initiative?

Now stakeholders are trying to determine potential steps the district could take for these buildings. Over the next four months, a roughly 30-member committee–composed of students, parents, staff and community members–will serve in an advisory capacity to review district data and work in small groups to develop solutions to improve the student experience, academic performance, facilities operations, enrollment policies and finances.

The public is allowed to attend the committee’s meetings through June, but public comment will not be taken. Instead, community members can fill out an online survey to provide feedback. Recordings of the meetings will be posted to the IPS website. The next meeting is at 6 p.m. April 14 at Francis W. Parker School 56.

After June, IPS administrators will allow the public to provide feedback on a proposed reorganization plan before IPS staff members present the plan to board members in October. The resulting plan will be implemented over the next three years.

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15 thoughts on “‘Everything is on the table’ as IPS addresses enrollment decline, too many schools

  1. A repeat of the issues that have existed for decades and were raised again around the time IPS asked for $1billion in funding. Seems they are still unable to deal with it.

    1. I agree. I hear 10 years ago and maybe three superintendents ago that peak enrollment was something like 100+K back in the 70s’ and now is less than 40K. Why have we not gotten rid of half the school buildings!

  2. Rather than take the obvious lesson – that parents are dissatisfied with what IPS offers and will do just about anything to send their kids elsewhere as a result – the district and its board went all in on endorsing BLM, wokeness, and the fiction systemic racism is the biggest problem with chronic academic underperformance…rather than taking a hard look at the kids, their parents, and the school system itself. Decades of cultural and educational malpractice have caught up with the district, and it still has further to fall under its current leadership.

  3. IPS may very well be the largest property owner in the City. Properties that they built and acquired to teach children that lived in the areas they are located. These schools were hubs that helped to bring communities together. The absolute WORST thing is for these schools to fall into disrepair, exacerbating an already critical issue in some of the neighborhoods where they reside, adding to the blight that may already exist.

    I think it would be in the best interest of IPS (and this is a very superficial statement coming from someone that doesn’t know all of the complications and/or issues) to relinquish the buildings to developers who would be required to transform them into affordable housing under a business plan that was both forward thinking and sustainable. Some could be transformed into buildings that provide useful resources that would include counseling and other social and health-related services. Through tax incentives and special loan programs from the public and/or private sector, these buildings would become useful facilities that would be renewed to serve the general good of the community and get them off the back of IPS. In this way, IPS could then focus on spending their dollars on the resources they need to continue their work of education rather than real estate. Work like improving teacher salaries, ensuring the buildings that are retained are MAINTAINED and/or improved while, perhaps, providing funds for other programs that need investment and the thoughtful leadership of the Administration and the Board.

  4. I know this sounds radical, but the IPS boundaries follow the old pre-unigov city limits. This has created a foot print that is unmanageable from a transportation point of view with long arms of territory snaking east, west, south, and north.

    IPS needs to look at a process to shed some of that territory to consolidate it’s boundaries and move those students to the township districts just so that it has a more compact and manageable foot print. I have no idea how that process would work, but it should be explored, because ultimately if it is going to be good for the students, it should be an option.

    1. UniGov was meant to consolidate the good schools where white kids still lived and to abandon poor minority neighborhoods… Those lines can still be easily seen today and IPS legally cannot change the population it serves.

      They are setup to fail, and everyone laments that they cant figure out an impossible problem.

  5. No one is noting the effect that all of the charter schools have had on public education. Many have failed and these draw money and students from the public system. A charter school may be good for some students but too many have been approved and allowed. Once they have the funds at the start of the school year, those are lost from the public system. If the student returns to the public school the funds do not follow.
    The concept was very good, but control has been lousy and not the public school system gets the blame. The politicians need to wake up and address this problem along with finding the best way to revitalize our public schools.

    1. Public schools were failing long before anyone had even heard of a Charter school, and Charter schools largely came about because of it. It laughable to blame charter schools for the problem

  6. I HIGHLY doubt “everything is on the table”. IPS is a Democrat political machine and jobs bank. ANY reduction is considered a threat and they fight it tooth and nail. Remember when a cash starved IPS refused to sell the abandoned Broad Ripple HS because they were afraid a charter school going into the building would show them up?
    Reduce the physical and employee footprint to fit the current demand. Sell the rest. The current market will bring the most for those properties. In the unlikely event enrollment goes up, we can build new modern schools if needed. A high school level business class would come up with the obvious solution.

  7. It is not wrong to endorse BLM as the objective is to ensure equal, not special, justice for those in the affected category. As such, many find such a comment offensive as it detracts from the issue of sound education via an unfortunate and unnecessary partisan volley of the pejorative pairing of two different aspects, BLM and perceived wokeness. It is not wrong to be sensitive to injustices of the past and present.

    A solid and successful school system is absolutely necessary. The significant decrease in the number of IPS students in due not only to concern regarding educational quality but also demographic changes that have occurred in Marion County. Once relatively dense neighborhoods have changed significantly and the number of residents with children has decreased. Families have moved to areas of township schools and across the [Marion] county line to other districts in search of better, larger and newer housing as well as better school districts. Unigov established a significant increase in Indidanpolis population but only a partial commingling of what were once separate county and city offices — bluntly, IPS remained separate from township schools despite the so-called economies of Unigov and only relatively recently did the sheriff and IPD merge as a single agency. Unigov in too many aspects reflected both dysfunctional balkanization and forward-thinking coordination.

    One does agree that IPS needs to focus on scholastic improvement of its quite diverse student body. The objective should be high quality education with high standards. Seeking the lowest common denominator is not a sound strategy. However, a key challenge is support not only from dedicated teachers but also from parents who much understand that education requires their involvement in supporting, encouraging and engaging their children to achieve. IPS must deal with excess infrastructure which likely means disposal (selling) for other purposes. A long term approach must be developed to focus on students at key locations where instruction, staff, equipment would be most efficiently utilized for sustained improvement in achievement.

    However, one also questions whether a broader restructuring would be better. Should IPS be abolished and students be incorporated into the respective township systems. This, of course, would require and new district for Center Township or assignment of Center Township students and/or facilities to adjacent townships. Yes, I realize this is heresy for some readers. But what would best benefit students and how could improvement realistically be achieved. Perhaps continued attempts to upright a slowing sinking ship without lifeboats should be replaced with new more efficient vessels.

  8. NOTE TO IBJ EDITORS:
    This story is horribly incomplete.

    At the outset, it asserts two problems: declining enrollment and buildings in bad shape. Anyone with any common sense would assume, “Great, problem solved! Close the bad buildings.” Next subject ……

    Then a long diatribe about how expensive it would be to fix the old buildings …. “Hey, wait. Why wld we repair buildings we don’t need?” [This reporter never got anywhere near answering that question.]

    Equally bad, Ms Gabriel leaves us completely confused about how many schools IPS actually operates. Kids enrolled in the Innovation Schools sponsored by The Mindtrust are counted in the IPS enrollment data; I think perhaps the Charter Schools — which are PUBLIC schools — may also be counted in the IPS enrollment … not sure. These are KEY facts. You need to tell us the answers. How about a chart that would show this info?

    At the end of the day, isn’t the legitimate question: Why is IPS operating ANY schools. Why isn’t IPS the first district in the state to eliminate it’s massive fixed costs of administration and license each school to a qualified operator. Then let them all compete for the students. Sell all the buildings. And become a market-maker dedicated to providing DATA to parents about how well each school does.

    Our tax dollars should not be going to support a school district; they should be going to support the education of kids inside the boundaries of the district.

    Worse,

    Nearly $500 million in improvements, repairs and other deferred maintenance is needed to fix those and other school buildings, according to a recent analysis the district commissioned. The analysis also found the district has 18,500 open seats across IPS-owned buildings.

    These challenges come as the district faces impending annual deficits and seeks to stabilize enrollment and improve academics.

    (1)

  9. Indiana’s school funding laws separate “capital” and “operating” budgets, so it is easy for school systems to underfund and defer maintenance and later wrap all that deferred maintenance into “remodeling” capital projects.

    I believe that’s what happened 15-20 years ago when Dr. White led the “modernization” capital program…which I believe was a $500 million referendum. Now that Bill is due again.

  10. I agree that the article needed more clarity around what constitutes empty seats in IPS owned buildings.

    Many charters are operated in IPS-owned buildings; are those students and buildings counted in the district total? If so, why? Shouldn’t the charters pay for maintenance and upkeep?

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