IPS superintendent seeks tax increase to fund school reorganization plan

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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.

Operating referendum would expand academic programs

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.

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28 thoughts on “IPS superintendent seeks tax increase to fund school reorganization plan

  1. Why are there more Administrators in IPS than Teachers?
    No more money until they right size. Fire 90% of these high paid do nothings, thus allowing for more teachers and smaller classes.
    Teachers Union will never let it happen.

    1. Bernard L., what is your source for the allegation that there are more administrators in IPS than teachers? The latest information I have seen states there are 2,600 teachers and roughly the same amount of non-teaching personnel – custodians, maintenance staff, cafeteria employees, classroom aides, secretaries, school police, and yes, superintendents, principals and assistant principals (only personnel in these last three categories can be properly characterized as “administrators”).

    1. Failing scores due to unaccountable parents & 60% of IPS being on subsidized lunches…

    2. IPS has some of the most incredible teachers. And students. Someone who can say otherwise isn’t operating with facts.

    3. Agreed JJ – the failure of parents and the attack on the American family is a huge issue and destroys the foundation the kids need. Doesn’t mean failing teachers and specifically wasteful administrators get to keep funding their boondoggle off taxpayers.

  2. Why are referendums allowed to be voted on during primary elections – when voter turnout is the lowest. Shouldn’t they be required to take place during general elections?

    1. Obviously so there is less voter knowledge about the potential impact of these tax increases. Washington Township has successfully ratcheted up taxes a couple of times in the last 7 years or so, now my tax bill is 50% higher than it was.

  3. Maybe IPS wouldn’t have to pursue a tax increase if they were allowed to do things like sell Broad Ripple High School for the millions it’s worth … instead of giving it away for $1 to a charter school.

    By the way, schools aren’t allowed to use the same pot of money for building maintenance… to pay teachers, or vice versa. But you all knew that, right?

    1. Yes! That is ridiculous!! But I would be curious why they didn’t make use of that bulding since it seems to be in good condition..

      And agreed that we need to review all the funding streams and realign them. I am not knowledgeable on all the intricacies of the funding, but yes! That would be a great place to start right-sizing.

    2. The market value of the property should not be a criterion used to determine whether to close a school.
      Yes, most of us know schools are not allowed to use the same pot of money for building maintenance, to pay teachers, etc.

  4. OK folks, let’s clarify a couple of things:
    The Indianapolis Education Association (IEA) represents the teachers in IPS. The administrators are a separate entity.
    Teachers welcome and support accountability; nevertheless, at the high school level, student attendance has been/and is a major concern impacting scores and parental involvement is a huge challenge for all.
    Is there room for right-sizing? You bet! The Educational Service Center (120 East Walnut St.) was opened in the 1960’s when file cabinets were needed and enrollment exceeded 100,000. With enrollment far less that that now, that building could be shuttered.

  5. It seems it would be helpful if the story included info on the hundreds of millions authorized under previous referenda in the past decade or so to upgrade buildings and how much of that money has been spent. My recollection was that those monies were supposed to pay for all the needed upgrades to buildings. Have those improvements been completed and become obsolete already. With the ongoing closings of buildings, is there money available from the previous referenda that could be reallocated to buildings that aren’t closing?

    Also, how long will the taxes from the previous referenda continue to be assessed?

  6. The time has come to eliminate IPS and the political control of schools in this district.
    All school age children shld get full value vouchers to spend wherever they wish. Completely eliminate the entire administrative superstructure; use part of that savings to contract with MindTrust to provide market information on all schools and pour the rest into voucher values.

  7. IPS needs to get real about getting rid of buildings that don’t serve them, and would cost too much to bring back to par. IMHO, IPS spends too much time/energy trying to be everything +education for too many students. Parents need to step up and parent. I know some families need a lot of extra assistance, but IPS needs to focus on EDUCATION. Maybe rent some of the extra buildings to agencies who provide the needed family resources so that workset can be lifted from IPS staff? Let’s get creative!
    For identified students in grades 1-3 they should focus almost solely on reading, writing and math. Possibly have three tracks in each elementary–one for basics (reading, writing and math) for students who are struggling with these essential skills; one for solid students who are at an accpetable level and not struggling with basic skills where they focus on maintaining the basic skills and expand into other skills; then a level for students who are excelling and need an expanded curriculum to keep them challenged and learning.
    There are some tough decisions to be made.

  8. why do you think so many people DON’T want to live downtown or move out?! They get tired of SO much money year in and year out being taxed from them for IPS with continued failed results…..

    1. Glen F., you are wrong that “so many people DON’T want to live downtown or move out.” Vacancy rates for downtown homes, condos, and apartments are less than 5% (which is why developers, risking their own money, are planning hundreds of new apartments alone in the downtown area in the next couple of years). You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to fake facts.

    2. Brent B., have you not noticed that nearly every good part of Indy has very few vacancies, whether homes or apartments? It’s not as if downtown’s vacancy rates are low and the donut counties have high ones. Nice attempted spin on my statement though.

  9. We are still paying on the “two” approved referendums from 2018, and will pay on those for 8 years. Those increased taxes by hundreds of dollars per year, per property. Is there accountability for where that money has gone, or continues to go? It appears, the new referendum they want is to cover mostly the exact same things the current two are or were to cover? Again, where is the money going? IPS will never change no matter how much money is thrown at it.

  10. This are difficult issues. We also shouldn’t lose sight that when Unigov was passed, the trade-offs not only involved police and fire, but the different school systems too. So, this is the legacy of the political deal making. Why not go to a county wide system? Why do we have different township systems? The students in IPS deserve the same opportunities as those in townships:

    1. Schools have never been part of city or county government. The boards of each school district are elected independently. The schools were never impacted by UniGov. What did impact the schools was the cross-district busing order issued by Federal Judge S. Hugh Dillion. Families within the IPS district were affected because some students were bussed to the “suburban” townships, which demanded long bus rides, it was difficult for parents to be involved at school, participation in extra-curricular activities was difficult, etc. IPS families wanted choices, “suburban” districts were satisfied with the status quo because they were paid more per student being bussed to them than it cost to educate them. When the public demand school choice increased and charter schools were established in response, former Mayor Bart Peterson wanted the ability to approve charters. Since, mayors have used the bully pulpit to assist IPS politically on certain matters. For example, current mayor Joe Hogsett lobbied the Indiana Board of Education to close Thomas Carr Howe High School a few years ago.

  11. How did IPS arrive at the $410 Million figure for capital? It seems curious this is the same amount needed to retire outstanding debt. Will this be enough to build new schools and renovate several others, or do they plan to come back and ask for more money to cover planned over-runs?

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