School Finance

State funding debate makes IPS budgeting 'murky'

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
IPS will give bonuses to many support staffers and administrators. But AFSCME Local 661 has not ratified the contract.

Indianapolis Public Schools could lose as much as $18 million in state aid over the next two years if changes to the state’s school funding formula approved by the Indiana House last month make it into law.

Without changes to the budget bill, those losses could be much more.

As it stands today, an apparent mistake in calculating school district poverty rates could set IPS back another $14 million if it’s not fixed by the Senate this month.

Despite all that uncertainty, IPS on Monday proposed an operating budget that assumes state revenue will be basically unchanged from last year.

Why?

Well, district officials say, there wasn’t much else they could do for now.

State law requires school districts to publish and advertise their budget proposals before submitting them to the state by an April 1 deadline.

But at this point, IPS can only guess how much state aid it will receive next year.

The district simply cannot make a budget based on a proposed state budget that is likely to change, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said. The best it can do is plan as if everything will remain the same and be prepared to adjust as the budget takes shape.

“It would be an overreaction or a knee-jerk to start the plan based on what we’ve learned thus far,” Ferebee said.

IPS’s proposed $232.7 million general fund budget for 2015-16 instead assumes state aid will continue to drop by $91.40 per student as part of a seven-year plan to even out state support between wealthy and poor districts. Districts like IPS, with large numbers of poor children, can receive up to $3,000 per student more than the school districts with the least poor children.

Republicans, who control the legislature, have argued that gap is too wide and should be narrowed. IPS and other poor district say they need every extra dollar to help poor children overcome barriers to learning that many of them face.

The school board will vote on the budget next week, knowing it is simply a best guess.

Board member Sam Odle said the board must aid Ferebee in making the district’s case to the legislature.

“The rest of us have to make sure IPS is represented at the Statehouse and our lawmakers understand how important it is to keep IPS’s funding up so we can create the right educational experience for our students,” he said.

One further complication for IPS: the district is shifting from a calendar year budget to a fiscal year budget that runs July 1 until June 30 of the following year. The goal is to better match the budget process to the rhythms of the school year.

“This first transition year is of course awkward,” Ferebee said. “We believe this will allow us to be good stewards and live within our means and have better allocations to schools. We know it’s going to be a little murky at first.”

Here’s what the district envisions that next school year’s general fund budget for day-to-day expenses will include:

  • No surplus. Income is expected to match expenses. IPS had surpluses of $4 million and $8 million the past two years.
  • An assumption that the district’s enrollment will remain basically steady. The district is not planning for enrollment to grow as it did in 2011-12 and 2012-13, but also does not expect it to fall as it did last year.
  • No plan for a significant raise for employees. The budget includes only a tiny $114,000 bump to about $164.6 million allocated for salaries. The district expects to spend $1.4 million more than last year on benefits.

Board member Gayle Cosby said she was not thrilled to see a meager increase in the district’s proposed budget for salaries. Board members and Ferebee have repeatedly said they’d like to give raises next year to IPS teachers.

But Ferebee said the plan was difficult to put together because of the uncertainty of budget talks at the Statehouse. The Senate has just begun their debate about the issue, and will later have to confer again with the House before coming to an agreement.

“You do it knowing there’s going to be a lot of back and forth at the Statehouse and you wait patiently until you get the final word,” Ferebee said. “We’ll be a part of those conversations and we look forward to fruitful conversation about how IPS can be best supported.”

It’s too early to know what the district will be able to do when it comes to raises, Ferebee said. Bargaining with the teachers union will begin over the summer.

“What we worry about is that what’s being proposed may compromise our ability to move forward with some of our strategic priorities we’ve discussed and may comprise our ability to be as competitive as we want to be with teacher compensation,” Ferebee said.

The school board is scheduled to vote to adopt the budget on March 19.

IPS referendum

Seeking property tax hikes, Indianapolis Public Schools considers selling headquarters

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

As Indianapolis Public Schools leaders prepare to ask voters for more money, they are considering a dramatic move: Selling the district’s downtown headquarters.

The administration is exploring the sale of its building at 120 E. Walnut St., which has housed the district’s central office since 1960, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Although architecturally dated, the concrete building has location in its favor. It sits on a 1.7-acre lot, just blocks from the Central Library, the cultural trail, and new development.

A sale could prove lucrative for the cash-strapped Indianapolis Public Schools, which is facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year.

A decision to sell the property could also convince voters, who are being asked to approve property taxes hikes in November, that the district is doing all it can to raise money. Two referendums to generate additional revenue for schools are expected to be on the ballot.

“IPS has been very committed and aggressive to its efforts to right-sizing and being good stewards to taxpayers dollars,” Ferebee said. “Hopefully, that [will] provide much confidence to taxpayers that when they are making investments into IPS, they are strong investments.”

Before going to taxpayers for more money, the district has “exhausted most options for generating revenue,” Ferebee added.

The administration is selling property to shrink the physical footprint of a district where enrollment has declined for decades. The number of students peaked at nearly 109,000 late-1960s. This past academic year, enrollment was 31,000.

During Ferebee’s tenure, officials say Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk its central office spending. But the district continues to face longstanding criticism over the expense of its administrative staff at a time when school budgets are tight.

Ferebee’s administration has been selling underused buildings since late 2015, including the former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Mass. Ave., and at least three former school campuses. Selling those buildings has both cut maintenance costs and generated revenue. By the end of this year, officials expect to have sold 10 properties and raised nearly $21 million.

But the district is also embroiled in a more complicated real estate deal. After closing Broad Ripple High School, the district wants to sell the property. But state law requires that charter schools get first dibs on the building, and two charter high schools recently floated a joint proposal to purchase the building.

The prospect of selling the central office raises a significant challenge: If the building were sold, the district would either need to make a deal for office space at the site or find a new location for its employees who work there. Ferebee said the district is open to moving these staffers, so long as the new location is centrally located, and therefore accessible to families from all around the district.

It will likely be months before the district decides whether or not to sell the property. The process will begin in late July or early August when the district invites developers to submit proposals for the property, but not a financial bid, according to Abbe Hohmann, a commercial real estate consultant who has been helping the district sell property since 2014.

Once the district sees developers’ ideas, leaders will make a decision about whether or not to sell the building. If it decides to move forward, it would proceed with a more formal process of a request for bids, and could make a decision on a bid in early 2019, Hohmann said.

Hohmann did not provide an estimate of how much the central office building could fetch. But when it comes to other sales, the district has “far exceeded our expectations,” she said. “We’ve had a great response from the development community.”

Eyes on

Happening at a campus near you: Here’s what the security review of every public school in Tennessee looks like

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sumner County Schools safety coordinator Katie Brown and Gallatin police Lt. Billy Vahldiek examine the window pane in a school hallway to make sure the glass is shatter-resistant. The review team is one of more than a hundred across the state who are conducting security assessments this summer of every Tennessee public school.

Balancing a clipboard in one hand and a coffee tumbler in the other, Katie Brown bends down to inspect a window pane in the hallway of a 10-year-old Tennessee school building.

The glass is shatter-resistant. Check.

Down the hall, Lt. Billy Vahldiek opens an outside exit door and then watches as it latches and locks properly. Check.

Earlier that morning, both Brown and Vahldiek circled the elementary school’s outside perimeter to make sure lighting is adequate, signage is clear, and landscaping doesn’t create blind spots where an intruder could hide.

The pair — one a school safety coordinator, the other a police officer — are teaming up on this day in Sumner County, north of Nashville, to walk through several schools and review security protocols with their principals as part of a statewide review.

“A lot of these schools were built post-Columbine, and some of them are post-Sandy Hook, but none of them are post-Parkland,” said Vahldiek, a Gallatin police officer, chronologically listing three of the nation’s most horrific school shootings.

Aging school facilities and heightened safety concerns are the prime drivers behind Tennessee’s sweeping summertime inspection of all 1,800 of its public school campuses. Gov. Bill Haslam ordered the unprecedented assessment in March following an intruder’s fatal shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The state’s goal is to identify vulnerabilities that could put Tennessee students and staff at similar risk — and to inform districts how they should use $35 million in safety grants in the months ahead.

Tennessee is among states that responded to Parkland by stepping up their upcoming budgets for thwarting potential attackers. This spring, Haslam and the Legislature doubled to $10 million the amount of recurring annual safety grants — and also provided a one-time investment of $25 million. A share of the money will become available to all 147 districts beginning in July based on Tennessee’s school funding formula — but only after the school systems provide the state with safety inventories of all of their schools.

"It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this."Mike Hermann, Tennessee Department of Education

“It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this,” said Mike Hermann, who is helping to coordinate the review in behalf of the state Education Department.

“Our work is definitely cut out for us this summer,” added Commissioner David Purkey, whose Safety and Homeland Security department is spearheading the initiative. “But there’s a sense of urgency. We want to get it all done by the start of the school year, at least that’s our goal.”

As of this week, about a third of the inspection reports had been submitted — on pace with the state’s timetable. In mid-July, Tennessee will begin accepting applications for the extra spending money.

Most of the one-time grants are expected to further harden school campuses with improvements like upgraded security cameras, fixing or replacing broken locks or outdated doors, and beefing up front entrances. The smaller annual funding could be tapped to hire law enforcement officers to police some campuses, though the money is a drop in the bucket toward providing coverage for every school. There’s also opportunity to invest in mental health services if that’s identified as a local priority.


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The money will only go so far. Still, officials believe the safety review lays the groundwork for next steps.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for schools to make an honest appraisal of where they are with security,” Hermann said. “And we’re going to have a much clearer picture of where we are statewide so that future action by the next governor and General Assembly can be based on a higher level of information.”

The reviews are conducted by local teams who participated in regional trainings provided by the state Safety and Homeland Security Department. Comprised of school personnel and local law enforcement, each two-person team follows an 89-point checklist of risks and precautions based on national standards developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
On-site security reviews are being conducted in schools statewide this summer under an order from Gov. Bill Haslam.

Depending on the building’s age and size, each review usually take two to three hours as inspection teams meet with the principal and inspect the physical facility. Can a school control access to the building? Do all staff wear photo identification badges on campus? Do teachers keep their classroom doors locked?

“The days of propping open doors on a pretty day are gone,” said Brown as she and Vahldiek went through the checklist during one inspection.

The teams also document the availability of personnel for security and for student support services such as school psychologists, as well as relationships with local law enforcement and healthcare providers. Finally, they submit their reports to the state and include copies of each school’s emergency plans and its drill logs from the previous year.

Unfortunately, summertime does not lend itself to seeing a school on a typical school day. For now, the buildings are mostly empty of students and staff as classrooms are painted, floors are waxed, and maintenance performed. But Brown views school break as a good time to look at the nitty-gritty details and to have thoughtful, unrushed conversations with school leaders that should trickle down to faculty and staff.

“We absolutely are taking this seriously,” said Brown, who is coordinating 46 reviews for Sumner County Schools.

“Most things on the checklist are not requirements or codes; they’re recommendations and best practices,” she said. “But this raises our awareness. It reinforces the good things we’re already doing. And it will inform how we use the safety grants.”

Editor’s note: This story does not name the school being inspected as a condition of Chalkbeat’s reporter shadowing the review team.