School Finance

IPS pilot offers cash to keep great teachers in the classroom while they train peers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

After three years as a teacher, Britney Yount realized that if she wanted a leadership role in education, she would have to leave the classroom.

So Yount took a job as an instructional coach for Teach for America, and now she spends her days training other teachers. But she’d like to be teaching kids, too.

“Every time I go in a classroom and I see kids with their teacher and they’re not my kids, I really, really miss that,” she said. “But I really want to use the skills I’ve learned in the last couple of years.”

It’s a common problem in education: in order for less experienced teachers to benefit from the knowledge of their peers, educators who use their expertise to offer training or support often have to give up teaching. That means kids are missing out on learning from some of the very best teachers.

A new program in Indianapolis Public Schools aims to change that equation by giving educators the chance to be professional leaders and mentors without leaving the classroom. The program will offer a small group of teachers with records of success extra pay to lead other teachers or teach more students.

The district is offering big money for the teachers it selects. They can make as much as $18,300 in extra pay, depending on how many extra duties they take on. All the teachers in the program will make at least $6,800 in extra pay.

Yount, who was at an informational meeting on the new program last week, was enthusiastic.

“I’m here to figure out a way to be in a classroom and have a community of kiddos that are mine, but also increase my leadership skills,” she said.

The “opportunity culture” initiative, which is modeled on a program developed in North Carolina, will pilot at six IPS schools beginning next fall. Each school is structuring its new leadership roles differently, but they fall into two categories — positions where teachers will educate more students than usual and positions where they will lead and coach other teachers in their school.

The goal is for excellent teachers to have an even greater effect on their schools, said Mindy Schlegel, the district’s talent officer.

“The thing that’s typically been done in education is that we pull our best people out to be coaches,” she said. “They’re no longer in front of kids or accountable for student outcomes.”

Struggling schools lead the charge

The six schools trying out the program are facing big challenges. They all struggle with low student test scores, and they are all part of “transformation zones,” an IPS turnaround effort that launched this year.

Those schools are a good fit for the program precisely because they need to attract and retain talented teachers, and they need strong teacher leadership, Schlegel said.

“We need something different,” said Crishell Sam, principal of School 48, a transformation zone school that will be in the pilot group. “We need something new because you can’t keep operating and doing the same thing in order to get different results.”

The other schools that will pilot opportunity culture include three elementary schools and two secondary schools: School 107, School 63, School 49, Northwest High School and George Washington High School.

Some of the schools will hire teachers to lead teams of other educators, taking on responsibilities like lesson planning and coaching. But they will still rotate into the classroom, working directly with students. Other schools will use strategies like team teaching and blended learning to help excellent teachers reach more students.

If the pilot program is successful, the district plans to slowly roll it out to more schools, Schlegel said.

School 48 is starting small with just one teacher in the program. In order to help third-grade students improve their reading, Sam plans to hire a teacher who will be dedicated to literacy. The teacher will only teach reading and writing, while other educators teach subjects such as math and science.

Elementary school teachers often have subjects that they love to teach and plan for. With opportunity culture, Sam said, “that one teacher who has all of these ideas and ways in which to make it work, she has that opportunity to expand her reach with those students.”

Balancing the costs

There’s no extra money on the table to help schools pay the teacher leaders they recruit. Instead, principals must shift funding from other parts of their budgets to pay for the leaders they want.

Teachers in leadership roles will earn additional stipends that won’t be less than $6,800 extra. But some teachers could earn up to $18,300 per year from the stipend, if they are leading several other teachers. The cost to schools will depend on how many teachers they select for leadership and what type of positions they decide to offer.

No current staff will lose their jobs to pay for stipends, Schlegel said. But principals may decide not to fill open positions.

There’s an advantage to building the program into school budgets, Schlegel said, because it will make it more sustainable in the long-term. Unlike prior, grant-funded initiatives to improve teacher leadership, the money won’t disappear.

“What we’re really looking to do,” she said, “is to start to think about building teacher leadership positions that can exist permanently.”

School Finance

IPS board votes to ask taxpayers for $315 million, reject the chamber’s plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indianapolis Public Schools officials voted Tuesday to ask taxpayers for $315 million over eight years to help close its budget gap — an amount that’s less than half the district’s initial proposal but is still high enough to draw skepticism from a local business group.

The school board pledged to continue discussions in the next week with the Indy Chamber, which released an alternative proposal last week calling for massive spending cuts and a significantly smaller tax increase. The school board rejected the proposal as unrealistic and instead voted to add a much larger tax measure to the November ballot.

If the school board and the chamber come to a different agreement before the July 24 meeting, the board can change the request for more taxpayer money before it goes to voters. Some board members, however, were dubious that they would be able to find common ground.

“While I appreciate the fact that we want to continue to negotiate, I’m pretty sure that I’m at rock bottom now,” said school board member Kelly Bentley. “That initial proposal by the chamber is, unfortunately in my mind, it’s insulting. It’s insulting to our children, and to our neighborhoods, and to our families.”

Chamber leaders, whose support is considered important to the referendum passing, were skeptical about the dollar amount. In a press release, the group said the district was “taking another step towards seeking a double-digit tax increase.”

“We’re concerned that our numbers are so divergent,” said chamber president and CEO Michael Huber in the statement. “We need to study the assumptions behind the $318 million request; clearly the tax impact is significant and the task of winning voter support will be challenging.”

During the board meeting, which lasted more than two hours, district leaders discussed why schools need more money and why the chamber report is unrealistic. They also took comments from community members who were largely supportive of the tax increase.

Joe Ignatius, who mentors students through 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, said that he has seen the benefits of more funding from referendums in other communities.

“This should be a no brainer, to invest in our future for the students,” Ignatius said. “Don’t think about the immediate impact of the dollars that may come out of your pocket but more the long-term impact.”

If the district goes forward with its plan, and voters approve the tax increase, the school system would get as much as $39.4 million more per year for eight years. A family with a home at the district’s median value — $75,300 — would pay about $3.90 more per month in property taxes. (Since the initial proposal, the district reduced the median home value used in calculations on the advice of a consultant.)

The district plan comes on the heels of months of uncertainty. After the school board abandoned its initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion for operating expenses and construction, district officials spent weeks working with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly proposal. Last month, the board approved a separate referendum to ask taxpayers for about $52 million for school renovations, particularly school safety features.

But the groups came to different conclusions about how much money the district needs for operating expenses.

The chamber released an analysis last week that called for $477 million in cuts, including eliminating busing for high school students, reducing the number of teachers, closing schools, and cutting central office staff. The recommendation also included a $100 million tax increase to fund 16 percent raises for teachers.

District officials, however, say the cuts proposed by the chamber are too aggressive and cannot be accomplished as quickly as the group wants. The administration and board members spent nearly an hour of the meeting Tuesday discussing the chamber plan, why they believe it’s methodology is wrong, and the devastating consequences they say it would have on schools.

Even if the $315 million plan proposed by the district passes, it will come with some sacrifices compared to the initial plan. Those cuts could include: reduced transportation for magnet schools, field trips, and after school activities; school closings; increased benefits costs for employees; and smaller pay increases for teachers and employees.

The district did not make a specific commitment to how much teacher pay would increase if the amount asked for in the referendum is approved, but Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the funds would pay for consistent raises.

“We would be at least addressing inflationary increases and cost of living, but we hope that we can be higher than that,” said Ferebee. “It would depend a lot on what we are able to realize in savings.”

The school board’s decision to rebuff the chamber’s recommendation puts the district in a difficult position. The chamber has no official role in determining the amount of the referendum, but it could be a politically powerful ally.

Last week, Al Hubbard, an influential philanthropist and businessman who provided major funding for the chamber analysis, said that if the district seeks more money than the group recommended, he would oppose the referendum.

The total tax increase would vary for each homeowner within district boundaries. The operating increase would raise taxes by up to $0.28 for every $100 of assessed property value, while the construction increase would raise taxes by up to $0.03 per $100 of assessed property value.

On school finance

Facing tax opposition, Indianapolis leaders may settle for less than schools need

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One day before the Indianapolis Public Schools Board is expected to approve a ballot measure to ask taxpayers for more funding, district officials appealed to a small group of community members for support.

Fewer than 40 people, including district staff, gathered Monday night at the New Era Church to hear from leaders about the need for more school funding. School board members plan to vote Tuesday on whether to ask voters to approve a tax hike to fund operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, in the November election. But just how much money they will seek is unknown.

The crowd at New Era was largely supportive of plans to raise more money for district schools, and at moments people appeared wistful that the district had abandoned an early plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, which one person described as a “dream.”

Martha Malinski, a parent at School 91 and a recent transplant from Minneapolis, said the city appears to have a “lack of investment” in education.

“Is the money that you are asking for enough?” she asked.

Whatever amount the district eventually seeks is likely to be dramatically scaled down from the first proposal. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has spent more than seven months grappling with the reality that many Indianapolis political leaders and taxpayers don’t have the stomach for the tax increase the district initially sought.

“We are trying to balance what’s too much in terms of tax burden with the need for our students,” said Ferebee, who also raised the possibility that the district might return to taxpayers for more money if the first referendum does not raise enough. “If we don’t invest in our young people now, what are the consequences and what do we have to pay later?”

After withdrawing their initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, district officials spent months working with the Indy Chamber to analyze Indianapolis Public Schools finances and find areas to trim in an effort to reduce the potential tax increase. But the district and chamber are at odds over how aggressive the cuts should be.

Last week, the chamber released a voluminous list of cuts the group says could save the school system $477 million over eight years. They include reducing the number of teachers, eliminating busing for high schoolers, and closing schools. The chamber has paired those cuts with a proposal for a referendum to increase school funding by $100 million, which it says could raise teacher salaries by 16 percent.

District officials, however, say the timeline for the cuts proposed by the chamber is not realistic. The analysis mostly includes strategies suggested by the district, said Ferebee. But steps like redistricting and closing schools, for example, can take many months.

“Where we are apart is the pace, the cadence and how aggressive the approach is with realizing those savings,” he said.

Not everyone at the meeting was supportive of the administration. Tim Stark, a teacher from George Washington High School, asked the superintendent not to work with charter high school partners until the district’s traditional high schools are fully enrolled. But Stark said he is still supportive of increasing funding for the district. “It is really important for IPS to get the funds,” he said.

The chamber has no explicit authority over the tax increase but it has the political sway to play an influential role in whether it passes. As a result, Indianapolis Public Schools officials are working to come to an agreement that will get that chamber’s support.

A separate measure to fund building improvements was announced by the district in June and incorporated into the chamber plan. That tax increase would raise $52 million for building improvements, primarily focused on safety. That’s about one-quarter of the initial proposal.