Indianapolis Public Schools just went through the difficult and excruciatingly painful process of closing three of the district’s seven high schools. Now the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce wants it to close more schools as a condition for getting business support for an upcoming school-funding referendum.
The chamber made the demand in an analysis of IPS finances that it released last week. The group said it is willing to support a modest tax increase to help fix aging buildings and give teachers and principals a raise, but only if the district agrees to cut nearly $500 million in spending over the next eight years.
That’s a huge amount — it’s more than a 15-percent reduction in spending, by my calculation. The chamber report never actually refers to closing schools (except in a footnote); it calls for reducing “excess seats.” But it’s clear that closing schools would produce the bulk of the savings. IPS officials say they would have to close at least 10 elementary or middle schools to make the cuts.
“At the end of the day, there are only a few ways to save money,” IPS school board member Kelly Bentley told me. “That’s closing schools and letting go of teachers.”
IPS enrollment has declined dramatically over the years, and that has led to a need for fewer schools. But closing schools in a city like Indianapolis is likely to leave IPS with fewer and fewer students, which will lead to less funding from the state. Which will eventually require closing more schools.
It’s a vicious cycle — or a “death spiral” for public schools, in Bentley’s words.
There are two main reasons for that. First, most parents like sending their children to schools in their neighborhood if it’s possible. If their local school closes, they may look for an alternative. In Indianapolis, there are dozens of charter schools and voucher-accepting private schools they can turn to.
Second, Indiana law says that charter school operators can buy or lease any unused public-school building for $1. Every time IPS closes a school, a charter school can swoop in and claim the building and use it to compete against IPS for students. This is a truly bad law. It deprives districts (and taxpayers) of what is rightfully theirs, and it creates an incentive to keep schools open when they should close.
Right now, two charter schools are using the law as leverage as they try to buy the just-closed Broad Ripple High School building, even though IPS isn’t in a hurry to sell. Several Indianapolis politicians are backing the charter schools, and the Indianapolis chamber is supporting the sale.
Aside from closing schools, the chamber calls for drastically downsizing the IPS teaching and administrative staff; outsourcing custodians, nurses and other services; partnering with the IndyGo bus service to transport high-school students and various other measures.
Saying IPS should cut its teaching staff by 12 percent, it plays down the impact of larger class sizes on student learning and makes the questionable claim that the district could accomplish the reduction without laying off teachers. It advocates cutting central-office staff by 50 percent — a number it apparently pulled out of thin air — ignoring the fact that, as Superintendent Lewis Ferebee says, IPS has already reduced non-teaching staff by 30 percent in recent years.
Reportedly, representatives of the district and the chamber have been talking, trying to reach common ground before IPS “community conversations” about the proposed referendum today and Tuesday.
Indiana has put IPS in a position where it simply must turn to the taxpayers, via property-tax referendums, to adequately fund schools. This will be a tough haul in a city where many residents long ago abandoned the public schools. But the Indianapolis chamber claims it is “committed to the success of IPS and its students.” Here’s a chance to bend a little and show it means it.