Apr 26, 2023 - News

"It is time": IPS superintendent makes case for tax hike

An orange sign reads: We choose IPS

IPS has a capital projects referendum on the May 2 ballot. Photo: Arika Herron/Axios

It's not just municipal primaries on the ballot next week — in a referendum, voters are being asked to approve $410 million in capital projects for Indianapolis Public Schools.

Why it matters: The state's largest public school district is in the middle of a huge reorganization effort that seeks to make good on promises leaders made during the summer of 2020 when the IPS board adopted a "racial equity policy."

Details: The property tax hike would raise the median homeowner's bill by $3 per month.

Context: As part of its Rebuilding Stronger initiative, IPS is overhauling its K-8 school programming by redistricting schools, shifting grade configurations and changing educational models at some buildings.

  • The capital projects that the referendum would fund are a major part of that work.
  • More than 20 schools would be affected.
  • All elementary and middle school buildings would be brought up to “good” status within the eight years of the referendum.
  • Right now, more than 30% of IPS buildings are rated in “poor” condition, according to a facilities study.

Flashback: Initially, IPS wanted to put an operating referendum on the ballot that would replace the one they have in place through 2026, but that plan was scrapped after a messy public fight with many of the city's charter schools — including those that the district partners with to run some of its schools.

Axios sat down with IPS superintendent Aleesia Johnson to talk about her pitch for the referendum, the future of the district, and that fight over sharing referendum dollars with charter schools.

  • This conversation has been edited for clarity and Smart Brevity. 😉

💰 Why does IPS need a capital projects referendum?

  • With our buildings' average age being 61 years old, it is time. It is time for those buildings to get some attention. It's also time for our students to have access to learning environments that reflect the value that we have for them.

🥵 If these buildings aren't currently in good condition, how are you making these spaces work for students right now?

  • For a number of buildings, it's things like roofing and HVAC systems. It's not that the building's about to fall on them, but it is about the level of comfort teachers and students might feel in that building.

👷 If the referendum doesn't pass, how do you keep kids in safe spaces?

  • For a number of the buildings that we chose to no longer offer student instruction … some of those decisions were made because those aren't great buildings for kids. That's one helpful aspect of the work we've been doing. What we've projected is that it would take us 14 years to do the same amount of work that we could complete in the eight years (of the referendum).

🔮 Originally, the district planned to seek an operating referendum, too. Will you revisit that in the future?

  • Our current 2018 operating referendum would expire in 2026. So, we know between now and 2026 we will need to come back to our community with that ask — lots of factors influencing when that timing would be.

💸 How big of a factor is referendum sharing with charter schools?

  • It's big.

🌎 Is there a world in which IPS doesn't renew its operating referendum?

  • Financially, right now, we would need to come back out. I think if we did not, we'd be talking about a more significant reduction in staffing and that's not a world we want to visit right now.

👫 Were you surprised by the position that your charter school partners took on this issue (of referendum sharing), aligning themselves with other charter schools in the city?

  • I was surprised by that, yeah.

💔 Does that affect the relationship going forward?

  • I've talked with a number of those partners since that time, just sort of… hey, what happened?
  • I think ultimately, people are doing what I expect people who care deeply about their kids and families to do, which is advocate for their communities. So, I don't begrudge anyone doing that. I do the exact same thing for students and families that I am directly responsible for, as well.
  • I think what we have to all figure out (is) where we go from here.

◼️ It looks like Rebuilding Stronger is meant to be a realization of the commitments made back in 2020, when the board passed its Black Lives Matter resolution and adopted the racial equity policy. Is that accurate?

  • I think it is, yeah.

🦉 Something you said (in 2020) was that you recognized at a certain point you might have to alienate some people or quit protecting some groups that you previously had — and that might ruffle some feathers. Has it?

  • We've heard about families making other choices … but we just talked to our enrollment director and we've not seen that play out in the actual top-line numbers.

🏫 Do you feel like you can still fully realize the Rebuilding Stronger plan without running the additional operating referendum?

  • Yes. We are committed to the plan as the board approved it back in November and executing on the plan for 2024-25. That referendum is, for the long-term viability of the district, going to need to happen.
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