School Finance

State budget debate: Should charter schools get extra cash?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

In most cases, Indiana charter schools draw money from fewer sources and generally get less aid per student then traditional public schools.

But the question for the Senate Appropriations Committee today was whether that was fair or if they should get a financial boost in the state’s next two-year budget.

Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools do not receive local property tax dollars from the state to pay for school buildings and busing. Proponents of charter schools argue they get less money to spend on educating students because some of those dollars must fill the gap for costs outside the classroom. They want the legislature to back Gov. Mike Pence’s proposal to boost charter school state aid by $1,500 per student.

“Traditional public schools spend local dollars on capital, which frees up general fund revenue to spend on teachers and classrooms,” said Chad Timmerman, Pence’s director of education policy. “Charters have to swallow (capital costs) as pure overhead.”

But critics of the idea say charters already get their own special funds that traditional schools can’t tap. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said if the concern is the need for charter schools to have capital dollars to support building purchase, rental or maintenance, extra aid should be focused on that problem.

“I know the conversation is about the $1,500 increase to charters schools, and I know that one of the reasons is for the capital piece, but I have not heard the $1,500 added to that would just be for capital,” she said. “I don’t feel the data shows that public charters should receive more tuition dollars to use as they wish.”

Ritz said charter schools have the same access to state and federal dollars as public schools, plus specific charter school grants that could provide up to three years of extra aid.

Others argued that the cost for adding $1,500 per student to charter schools — estimated at $90 million — was too high. The governor has proposed a total increase to the state’s education spending of about $200 million.

Over a decade, Indiana has seen charter schools grow quickly. Nearly 80 charter schools are now operating statewide, and some critics say fear that they are beginning to drain significant dollars from traditional public schools.

But Jon Hage, CEO of Florida-based Charter Schools USA, was among those who argued the state’s lower funding for charter schools discourages some high quality national networks from bringing more good charter schools to Indiana. CSUSA operates three former Indianapolis Public Schools under a contract with the state and wants to open charter schools here too.

But committee chairman Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, asked if the charter schools Indiana already has should first prove they can raise student test scores before more funding is added or efforts are made to attract new charter school networks.

“We have an awful lot of charter schools authorized by an awful lot of different people,” he said. “If we’re going to dedicate any additional funds to charter schools, I think the committee needs to be thinking about what those standards outght to be before we go ahead and decide to do that.”

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.

School Finance

Key lawmakers urge IPS to lease Broad Ripple high school to charter school

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Several Indiana lawmakers, including two influential state representatives, are calling on Indianapolis Public Schools leaders to sell the Broad Ripple High School campus to Purdue Polytechnic High School.

In a letter to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and the Indianapolis Public Schools Board sent Tuesday, nine lawmakers urged the district to quickly accept a verbal offer from Purdue Polytechnic to lease the building for up to $8 million.

The letter is the latest volley in a sustained campaign from Broad Ripple residents and local leaders to pressure the district to lease or sell the desirable building to a charter school. The district is instead considering steps that could eventually allow them sell the large property on the open market.

But lawmakers said the offer from Purdue Polytechnic is more lucrative and indicated they wouldn’t support allowing the district to sell the property to other buyers.

The letter from lawmakers described selling the property to Purdue Polytechnic as a “unique opportunity to capitalize on an immediate revenue opportunity while adhering to the letter and spirit of state law.”

It’s an important development because it was signed by House Speaker Brian Bosma and chairman of the House Education Committee Bob Behning, two elected officials whose support would be essential to changing a law that requires the district to first offer the building to charter schools for $1. Both are Republicans from Indianapolis.

Last year, the district lobbied for the law to be modified, and Behning initially included language in a bill to do so. When charter schools, including Purdue Polytechnic, expressed interest in the building, he withdrew the proposal.

The district announced last month that it planned to use the Broad Ripple building for operations over the next year, which will allow it to avoid placing the building on the unused property registry that would eventually make it available to charter operators.

The plan to continue using the building inspired pointed criticism from lawmakers, who described the move in the letter as an excuse not to lease the property to a charter school. Lawmakers hinted that the plan will not help win support for changing the law.

“It certainly would not be a good faith start to any effort to persuade the General Assembly to reconsider the charter facility law,” the letter said.

The legislature goes back in session in January.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board said in the statement that they appreciate the interest from lawmakers in the future of the building.

“We believe our constituents would not want us to circumvent a public process and bypass due diligence,” the statement continued. “We will continue to move with urgency recognizing our commitment to maximize resources for student needs and minimize burdens on taxpayers.”

Indianapolis Public Schools is currently gathering community perspectives on reusing the property and analyzing the market. The district is also planning an open process for soliciting proposals and bids for the property. The district’s proposal would stretch the sale process over about 15 months, culminating in a decision in September 2019. Purdue Polytechnic plans to open a second campus in fall 2019, and leaders are looking to nail down a location.