The Indianapolis Public Schools board was set Thursday night to consider a tax increase to fund its Rebuilding Stronger plan, which would close or merge several schools and reconfigure the grades served by more than three dozen others.
Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said she would present a plan at the Board of School Commissioners meeting at 6 p.m. to put two referendums on the May 2023 ballot that, if approved, could generate $410 million in capital funding and $50 million in annual operating funding for eight years.
The IPS board was not expected to vote on the proposal Thursday.
Johnson said if the referendum passes, the median homeowner in the IPS district would see a property tax increase of $6 per month. Property tax increases approved by voters in a referendum are not subject to the state’s property tax caps, according to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.
The district estimates that the tax increase would mean a $6 monthly increase for a resident whose home is valued at $138,500, the median home value of homes within the IPS boundaries. Taxpayers would see an increase beginning in 2024.
In an interview with Inside INdiana Business, Johnson said the funding would support facilities renovations throughout the district.
“Approximately one-third of our buildings are currently rated as being in poor condition, and so we want to ensure that we are addressing our facilities, that they reflect the values that we have for our students,” Johnson said. “If you drive 30 minutes in any direction from the center of our district, you can see pretty stark differences in the kinds of physical environments that students have access to.”
Johnson said the $50 million per year in operating funds would also support expanded student offerings created through the Rebuilding Stronger plan and support teacher compensation.
“Right now, our first-year teachers start at $50,000 a year this year, one of the highest rates across our state,” she said. “We want to continue to be competitive because we know with great teachers comes a great experience for our students. And certainly, we know that we want the value that our teachers bring to our district to be reflected in how they are compensated.”
Johnson unveiled the draft version of the Rebuilding Stronger plan during her State of the District address last month. She was to present a final plan, with the tax proposal, on Thursday night.
The ballot referendum for operating expenses would increase the tax rate from 19 cents per $100 of assessed property value to 25 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
The capital referendum would request roughly 16 cents per $100 of assessed value to cover debt for facilities. However, district officials said that they will soon finish paying off previous debt for capital projects, a move that would lower the overall tax rate and effectively cancel out that 16-cent increase.
As part of the plan, seven schools would close at the end of the current academic year, three of which would merge into existing schools.
Additionally, the district is proposing to reconfigure K-6, K-8 and 7-8 schools into K-5 and 6-8 schools. Some previously closed schools would reopen under a reconfiguration, including Broad Ripple Middle School, which would operate in the old Broad Ripple High School building.
IPS said the Rebuilding Stronger changes would go into effect in the 2024-2025 academic year.
Johnson said the plan aims to improve equity and increase access for more students.
“We were able to show in the data that there were existing disparities between experiences and classes that some students had access to at some schools that other students didn’t at other schools,” Johnson said.
“There were differences in the level of mobility that some of our schools experience,” she added. “So this idea of having a plan that will address those things that will allow more students to have access to more opportunity has definitely been something that people have been very excited about.”
However, Johnson said she understands the concerns some parents have shown over the closure of schools and the changes it will bring for students.
“We’ve certainly heard from our community, you know, sadness about those things,” she said. “When we’re proposing to significantly shift what they experience today, while there is excitement about what could be, it’s not without some grief or some warning because of the change that’s going to be necessary, we believe, to get there.”
The board is expected to vote on the Rebuilding Stronger plan next month.
Capital referendum would fund new buildings
The $410 million capital referendum would fund a new building for Sidener Academy for High Ability Students on the current site of Francis Parker Montessori School 56. Under the plan, School 56 would merge with James Russell Lowell School 51.
The money would also fund the construction of a new 650-student elementary school at the site of Joyce Kilmer School 69, which used to operate as the innovation charter school Kindezi Academy. The operator chose not to renew its agreement with the district in 2022.
Fourteen other schools would get facility upgrades:
- Arlington Middle School
- Broad Ripple High School
- Butler Lab School 55
- Carl Wilde School 79
- Eleanor Skillen School 34
- George Julian School 57
- George Washington Carver School 87
- Harshman Middle School
- James Whitcomb Riley School 43
- Longfellow Middle School
- Northwest Middle School
- Thomas Carr Howe Middle School
- Washington Irving School 14, and
- William Penn School 49.
The decision to upgrade buildings follows a facilities assessment that found 21% of the district’s school buildings are in poor or worse overall condition. Just 31% were in good or better condition.
The funding would help improve those ratings so that students have access to “better or warm or safe learning environments both in and outside of the building,” Johnson said.
The operating referendum, which would last eight years and generate $50 million annually, would help expand seven academic programs in schools throughout the district: the Center for Inquiry model that uses IB programming, Montessori, Reggio, STEM, high ability, arts, and dual language.
The funding would also provide continued competitive competition for staff — although exact amounts are still unclear. The starting salary for teachers currently sits at $50,400.
“We know that we are endeavoring to execute a pretty ambitious plan, and so having our staff on board will be important in ensuring that the compensation that they are offered continues to be competitive,” Johnson said.
The plan requires staff to undergo training for certain special academic programs, such as International Baccalaureate and Montessori.
What if voters say no?
The district could still move forward with parts of the Rebuilding Stronger plan if voters don’t approve the new taxes—including school consolidations, Johnson said.
The district could also still adopt its four new enrollment zones, allowing students to attend any school within each zone — a move that could help reduce student transiency during the school year. The district might not expand special programming, however, if the tax increases don’t pass.
“If our community is not willing to invest in all kids having at least that baseline experience, then the conversation in my mind needs to shift to, ‘OK, well then what are we reducing across the board?’” Johnson said. “Because we can’t continue to have sort of the haves and have-nots structure that we experience in some ways today.”
The primary election is May 2, 2023.