School Finance

3 Marion County districts will ask voters for more tax money Tuesday

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Perry Township and Beech Grove Schools have school repairs as part of their plans if voters approve new money Tuesday.

Three Marion County school districts say they need extra money to pay teachers, fix school buildings and continue to ensure children can have a bus ride to school.

Wayne Township and Perry Township will ask voters to approve new tax increases on the ballot for Tuesday’s primary election.

For Beech Grove, one referendum would continue to raise money to support its busing system, which could be scaled back or even discontinued if it fails, and a second would pay for building repairs.

Superintendent Paul Kaiser said the building fixes must be made. The only question is how long they’ll take and how much they will cost. Ideally, the district would complete its construction this summer.

“If we don’t do it with the referendum, it will take us 10 years to replace it all,” he said. “The cost of equipment and materials will go up a lot over the 10 years. This is more efficient.”

Here’s a breakdown of each district’s ballot requests:

Beech Grove Schools

  • Proposed tax increases: Two referenda will be up for a vote: A 35-cent continuation of existing taxes and a 15-cent increase per $100 of a property’s assessed value.
  • What the increase will support: busing, updated band and choir rooms, heating and air conditioning systems.
  • Potential new cost to the average homeowner: Less than $36 per year for the 15-cent tax increase.

Perry Township

  • Proposed tax increases: Two referenda will be up for a vote: A 42-cent increase and a 13-cent increase per $100 of a property’s assessed value.
  • What the increase will support: hiring of bus drivers and janitors and building more classrooms for the growing student population.
  • Potential new cost to the average homeowner: About $118 per year if both pass.

Wayne Township

  • Proposed Tax increases: A 35-cent increase per $100 of a property’s assessed value.
  • What the increase will support: teacher and staff salaries.
  • Potential new cost to the average homeowner: Less than $100 per year.

Kaiser said his district needs the 15-cent tax increase to update heating and air conditioning in four of its five buildings, and the high school needs updated band and choir rooms for a program that has seen the number of participants more than triple.

Tom Little, superintendent in Perry Township, said his district is struggling to keep up with enrollment growth — the district is already using 26 portable classroom “trailers” as a temporary fix, and they’re bringing in 14 more for next year.

“Whenever you add kids and are growing like we are, you need more bus drivers to transport kids,” Little said. “And whenever you add more classrooms and more areas, you have to have custodians to clean them.”

Yet there are still shortfalls districts say they’ve been dealing with since the state decided to put in place caps on property taxes that limited what schools could collect.

In 2010, the Indiana legislature passed a bill to stabilize homeowners’ property taxes. Homeowners now can’t pay more than one percent of the total assessed value of their property in property taxes. If a home is assessed at 150,000, residents won’t pay more than $1,500 in taxes.

Those caps meant schools lost a primary source of money, so the state allowed school districts to go to local taxpayers to seek voter approval for extra money if they fell

Wayne Township lost 37 percent of its property tax revenue when the tax caps went in place, Superintendent Jeff Butts said at a meeting earlier this year. Only Beech Grove’s 39 percent loss was bigger in Marion County, he said. Wayne Township is the second largest district in the county behind Indianapolis Public Schools.

Supporters of the tax caps believe they offer much-needed relief to homeowners who have seen property values vary widely in the past. But critics argue they cut off a viable way for districts to pay for services for students.

Kaiser said he is confident his community will support the ballot proposals because even with the changes, taxes would still be lower than they were in 2007.

“Our community, they care about the living environment for kids with the heating and cooling, and they care about the performing arts,” Kaiser said. “We think they’ll support it.”

But he’s still got a back-up plan. If the referendum should not pass, Kaiser said, the district will have to cancel busing or reduce it significantly.

If Perry Township’s referenda don’t pass, Little said the district will continue using portable classrooms and would have to convert art and music space, the library and even gyms into classrooms for elementary school students. And Wayne Township would almost certainly see layoffs if the tax increases aren’t approved, officials said.

At this point, it’s up to voters, Little said, and he’s cautiously optimistic.

“We need to go to the community, and we need to express to the community the issues we’re having and the concerns we’ve got,” Little said. “This really places the entire future of the school corporation in the hands of the taxpayer, who foots the bill, and that’s more than fair.”

grand bargain

Colorado lawmakers think they can still find a school finance fix that eluded them for two years

Two years ago, Colorado lawmakers established a special committee to dig deep into the state’s complex school finance problems and propose legislation to fix at least some of them.

Near the end of their tenure, instead of proposing solutions, lawmakers are asking for more time.

If a majority of legislators agree to keep the committee going, its work will take place in a new political environment. For the past four years, Democrats have controlled the state House and Republicans have controlled the state Senate. The makeup of the committee reflected that partisan split. Now Democrats control both chambers, and they ran on an agenda that included increasing funding for education.

But Amendment 73, a tax increase that would have generated $1.6 billion for schools, failed, leaving lawmakers with roughly the same pot of money they had before.

School district and union leaders have warned against changing the way the state distributes money to schools unless there’s more money in the system. Otherwise, efforts to make the formula fairer will end up reducing funds to some districts. Put another way: They want a bigger pie, not different-sized pieces of the same pie. But Colorado voters didn’t bake a bigger pie.

For state Rep. Alec Garnett, the Denver Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee, that’s an indication lawmakers need to develop a bipartisan proposal that voters would pass.

“We are where we are because none of the ideas have been right,” he said. “The ideas that have been brought forward have been rejected by the legislature and by the people of Colorado. It’s really important that this committee be seen as the vehicle that will get us a solution.”

Republican state senator-elect Paul Lundeen, the committee chair, said he sees broad consensus that Colorado’s school finance formula needs to put the needs of students rather than districts first.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I believe we will achieve a formula that is more student-centered.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, agreed that a bipartisan approach is important to showing voters that “all voices were heard,” but she also pointed to a political landscape that has changed. The committee should be bipartisan, she said, “as long as we are able.”

Not everyone thinks it makes sense to keep going.

We obviously support improving our school finance formula and appreciate the work and discussions of the committee, but without meaningful new money, we don’t believe in creating winners and losers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “This is a new day. It’s time to get fresh perspectives from a new legislature. We believe the committee should not continue and is outdated. It is no closer to real funding solutions than when it started two years ago.”

A representative of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, said the organization would take up this question with its members later in the month.

Discussions among lawmakers on the committee have been frustrating and circular at times, with consensus elusive not only on the solutions to the problem but on which problem is the most important to address. A consulting firm that worked with the committee for most of that two-year period ultimately failed to produce the simulation model lawmakers hoped to use to test new funding formulas because a key staff member left. Then decisions got put on hold to see how the election would turn out.

Legislators said the last two years of work have not been a waste at all but instead have laid the groundwork for coming discussions. They put on an optimistic face.

“The key is bipartisanship across the board,” Garnett said. “If Republicans and Democrats and the General Assembly say to voters, ‘Here is how we want to change the formula, but we need your help,’ that is the Colorado way.”

Garnett said those who have been at the table so far — a reference to school district superintendents who brought their own proposal last year — cannot continue to control the conversation.

“The tables have not been big enough to get support,” he said. “We can’t do this alone, but no one else can do it alone either.”

The committee unanimously supported an extension, but could disagree at the next meeting, set for mid-December, on changing the makeup or scope of the committee. Right now, it has five Democrats and five Republicans, with five members from the House and five from the Senate.

The original authorizing legislation was extremely broad. Zenzinger said it might make sense to set aside issues about which there has been stalemate. That would give Republicans less room to press their priorities.

Also in the mix: governor-elect Jared Polis has made his own education promises, especially funding full-day kindergarten. Some people question whether that’s the best use of scarce education dollars, which they might like to spend on special education or expanding preschool.

Garnett said he doesn’t think asking voters for more money is off the table, but it should be part of a broader conversation about changing constitutional limits on the growth of Colorado’s budget. A new formula could be created with a trigger, should voters agree to that change.

“This challenges everyone,” he said. “It requires Republicans to dig into the crisis, and it requires Democrats to dig into what needs to happen at the classroom level.”

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.