AUGUST 2, 2019

It’s hard to believe it’s back-to-school season; some Central Indiana districts have already started classes, and Indianapolis Public Schools start Monday!  But unlike kids who might crave a few more weeks of summer break, we’re excited about the new academic year:  Our partnership with IPS is already paying off, as teachers across the district are taking home higher salaries as they prepare their students for brighter futures.

A quick history lesson: You may recall that the Chamber worked with IPS last year to rethink its referendum plans, to prioritize teacher pay and protect taxpayers.  In a transparent and collaborative process with IPS, we led a group of private sector leaders and expert consultants to take a tough look at the district’s budget and recommend hundreds of millions of dollars in cost savings.

This operational assessment made it possible to revise the referendum plan to $220 million in new operating revenue and $50 million for (capital) school safety upgrades, winning over the business community and a resounding victory (70%) for the referendum at the ballot box last fall.

But we always knew that winning on Election Day would be easier than the daily effort to restructure IPS operations to ‘work smarter’ and fulfill the principles of our partnership:

  • Continue to promote student success with diverse learning experiences – high-performing neighborhood schools, magnet programs, innovation network schools and charters;
  • Recruit and retain great teachers and principals with competitive salaries, using 100% of new operating revenue for pay raises; and
  • Ensure sustainable financial operations for long-term solvency and local control.

The Indy Chamber committed to stay involved and raise private and philanthropic funds for new staff and consulting resources to drive financial and operational transformation.  And we have.

Sticking to the lesson plan:
But the November elections didn’t just bring a referendum win, but three new IPS board members.  A Superintendent transition followed, as we said goodbye to Lewis Ferebee and applauded the promotion of Aleesia Johnson – another champion for students, unafraid of change that advances education.

We also trudged through a legislative session dominated by debates over K-12 funding and teacher pay, and related issues with high stakes for IPS and other urban districts (changes to the ‘$1 charter law’ on school facilities, and proposed cuts to complexity aid to districts serving disadvantaged communities).

But through it all, our partnership with IPS stayed strong and focused on our blueprint for spending more on educators and student learning, less on unused facilities, administrative overhead and other costs beyond the classroom.  We’re proud to share a look at progress to date.

Mid-term report card:
Staffing for success:
Aleesia Johnson officially shed the ‘interim’ tag with a formal vote of the IPS board last week, to kick off the 2019-20 school year starts with energetic leadership invested in continued progress – that IPS works best not as a traditional school system, but a system of great schools aligned to diverse student needs.

To drive the same kind of innovation through the operations of the district, the Chamber supported the hiring of Dennis Tackitt, recruited this spring to become IPS’s first Chief of Transformation after serving as a consultant to our operational assessment work.  He’s joined by Sarah Robinson Chin as Director of Transformation, an IU grad who has recently worked as a consultant with the district and brings a detailed understanding of the challenges.

Their 100% focus on these efforts, bolstered by the commitment of the rest of the leadership team, is already making the grade in efficiency gains.

Budget savings – doing the math:
The district is about 60% of the way towards the 8-year savings target of $328 million – about $11 million ahead of the levels we thought were practical at this point.

It has to be said that many of the efficiency achievements to date fall into the “low-hanging fruit” category.  Many tougher choices lie ahead, especially in right-sizing facilities to enrollment, to spend resources on real students instead of empty seats.

Over the last 15 years, enrollment is down nearly 25%.  Numbers are moving in the right direction again, but paying to operate buildings based on enrollment decades ago takes resources from today’s families – but more tough choices on schools will still spark controversy and demand public outreach and input.

Continued cutbacks to non-academic staff, strategies to control health benefit costs and other planned changes won’t always be easy or popular, either – but IPS teachers are already seeing the upside.

To attract the cream of the crop among teachers, listen to the Wu-Tang Clan: “Cash rules everything around me.” The first round of much-needed teacher salary increases (an average of 5% across the district) were effective August 1st, 2018, and another set of teacher raises – along with double-digit boosts for principals – will take effect as this school year begins.

These raises elevate the IPS teacher pay scale among the highest in the region, from $47,000 for a starting teacher to a top-end salary of $90,000.

With principals among the best-paid as well (goals of $125,000 for elementary school leaders to $150,000 at the high school level) and 3% annual increases planned for teachers and principals thereafter, IPS is investing to become an employer of choice for great educators.

One urgent challenge threatening the district’s academic momentum was high teacher turnover (one of every four teachers leaving IPS from one school year to another).  With higher pay and a credible plan for continued raises, IPS reports that teacher resignations are down more than 40% in 2019!

Investing in inclusion – teacher pay, taking the bus and tax incentives
As Indiana’s largest school district serving its largest employment district, IPS is a priority in any discussion of Indy’s long-term economic potential – today’s IPS classrooms are preparing tomorrow’s workforce, and quality schools are also vital to talent (and business) attraction and retention.

But our work with IPS is also central to our vision for a more inclusive Indianapolis: The issues we’re fighting – concentrated poverty, neighborhood disinvestment, growing distances between people and jobs – are interconnected, and so are our strategies to reverse them.

Education is the most powerful long-term catalyst for upward mobility; accessible mass transit – simply being able to get to work – is one of the most basic short and longer-term needs.  We recently detailed the sweeping improvements being made on public transportation across the city as IndyGo prepares to launch the Red Line rapid transit route in the fall.

We’re excited that IPS and IndyGo are working together on a two-year pilot for the district’s high school students to ride IndyGo to school, a move that could save the district millions (making future teacher raises possible) if it can be made permanent.  It’s a strategy that couldn’t have gotten out of ‘park’ a few years ago, before the 2016 transit referendum provided the revenues to expand bus service.

Giving bus passes to IPS high school students also given them added mobility beyond the school day – for part-time jobs, taking advantage of youth programs or just exploring the city.  It’s a great investment beyond the transportation savings for IPS.

Transit also impacts housing (and Indianapolis will be a leader in affordable housing options as part of our transit-oriented development strategy), and that affects teachers, too.  Progress on the ‘Educator’s Village’ housing development on the Near East Side will help teachers live minutes from Arsenal Tech and an easy bus ride to other local schools.

Finally, our colleagues at Develop Indy joined Mayor Hogsett last week to announce a more inclusive economic development strategy – tying incentives to higher wages, local hiring practices, community investment and other factors.  It’s a great story that’s received national attention.

But growing wages also relies on growing educational attainment, building a talent pipeline from preschool through K-12 to post-secondary education and training – and through the ‘career academies’ and STEM programs at Arsenal Tech, IPS is more actively preparing students for career success in a higher-wage job market.

So this week’s positive stories are also pieces of a more aspirational puzzle, fitting into a region where more Hoosiers face fewer barriers to participating in our economy and demographics don’t equal destiny.