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Indianapolis charter schools want bigger share of proposed $824 million in new taxes

A woman holding a microphone stands behind a podium with a yellow sign on it that reads, “share to be fair.”

Mariama Shaheed, founder of the Global Preparatory Academy charter school, joined other leaders in calling on Indianapolis Public Schools to share more of its potential referendum funds with charters.

Amelia Pak-Harvey/Chalkbeat

Charter school leaders are calling on Indianapolis Public Schools to share a greater portion of roughly $824 million in proposed new property tax revenue that voters will decide on in May.

Leaders from 52 district-affiliated and independent charter schools argued on Friday that the annual amount from the tax proposal IPS has offered to share with its innovation network charters would still leave a big funding gap between charter students and those in the district’s traditional public schools. 

Students in traditional IPS schools, the charter school leaders argued, would receive an extra $2,300 per student annually from the district’s proposed referendum for operating expenses, while innovation charters would receive $650 more per student. Independent charter schools not affiliated with IPS, meanwhile, would not receive any money from the referendum. 

During a press conference Friday, the charter leaders argued that withholding funds would only exacerbate long-standing inequities for students of color and those in poverty. 

But Superintendent Aleesia Johnson reiterated in a Friday statement that the district would not share any voter-approved, additional tax revenue with charters that are not part of IPS.

The disagreement over the tax referendum is not the only major issue causing tension between the district and charters that could spill over into next year. 

IPS plans to lobby state lawmakers to keep its closing school buildings during the 2023 legislative session, even though state law dictates that the district must offer these facilities to charter schools or higher education institutions for a purchase or lease price of $1. At least three charters have already expressed interest in three of those school buildings, which will close at the end of this school year. 

The new taxes that IPS officials have proposed would help fund the district’s massive reorganization known as Rebuilding Stronger, which expands specialized academic programs to more schools while closing six other schools facing poor facility conditions or declining enrollment. 

Rebuilding Stronger is also designed to create a more equitable environment for students of color. However, during Friday’s press conference, charter leaders said the IPS plan for sharing the additional tax revenue would be unfair to charter students, most of whom are students of color.  

“This is not a public charter versus traditional public school issue,” said Eddie Rangel, executive director of Adelante Schools, which runs Emma Donnan Elementary and Middle School as a restart school. “This is a racial equity issue.”

But Johnson stressed that fiscal accountability and transparency with voters is key to the Rebuilding Stronger plan.

“The proposal to include charters not affiliated with IPS provides no mechanism for the IPS administration or our publicly elected Board of School Commissioners to oversee those funds — which amounts to spending without accountability,” she said in the statement. “We will only go to our taxpayers for funds if we can promise to be accountable for how they’re spent. We won’t ask if we can’t make that promise, as is the case here.” 

The proposed new tax revenues are split into two buckets. One referendum for capital costs would generate an estimated $410 million for building improvements and new construction, according to the district. A second referendum for operating expenses would generate $51.7 million annually for eight years to help maintain competitive teacher salaries, among other costs.

The district plans to share a portion of its operating referendum with its innovation charters, which are considered part of IPS and are given more autonomy as innovation schools. There are roughly 10,000 students in innovation charter schools. (IPS became the first district in the state to share referendum funding with charter schools when, last year, the school board approved sharing $500 per pupil from its 2018 operating referendum with its innovation charters.) 

If voters approve the new taxes, the district plans to provide $1.4 million of its annual $51.7 million in additional operating funds to its innovation charters, while also maintaining the amount given to schools from the 2018 operating referendum.

But the charter school community argued in a letter sent to Superintendent Aleesia Johnson on Tuesday that the proposed amount is not enough. 

Even with the funding outlined in a presentation to the board earlier this month, innovation charters would receive $1,650 less per pupil than traditional public school students in extra revenue, charter leaders said. 

And for independent charters, which do not receive any of the 2018 operating referendum money and would not receive any of the new funds, there would be a gap of more than $10,000 in per student funding between its students and those in traditional IPS schools, the leaders argued. 

Sarah Weimer, executive director of the Christel House Indianapolis charter school network, said if IPS sticks to its plan, she will have to tell her school community of 2,200 students that the additional tax dollars will contribute to racial and socioeconomic inequities in the city. The network has two innovation schools and two independent schools.

“We as invested stakeholders in our cities cannot support a plan that will continue to marginalize our students, create future disparities and inequities in our communities, and place our schools, our students and our families into another category,” Weimer said. 

The school board will vote on Tuesday whether to place the two referendum questions on the ballot. 

It remains to be seen if the two emerging disputes between IPS and charters over closing buildings and referendum funding will overlap in some way at the state level. 

State Rep. Robert Behning, an Indianapolis Republican who chaired the last session’s education committee, previously told Chalkbeat that he does not think the legislature would support a bill that simply allows IPS to keep its buildings that are slated to close.

Behning also noted that charter schools are interested in getting parity in funding, an issue that will also likely pop up during the session. 

But Weston Young, the district’s chief financial officer, previously told Chalkbeat that sharing referendum money with all charters within IPS boundaries would not be financially sustainable.

Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at apak-harvey@chalkbeat.org.

Corrections and clarifications: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the funding gap between charter schools and traditional public schools, as outlined by the charter school community.

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