School Finance

Budget woes cost Indianapolis its last Challenger Center

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of the Central Indiana Educational Service Center
Students simulated space shuttle missions at the Challenger Center.

A program designed to inspire kids to learn science that grew out of national mourning following a space shuttle disaster is now gone from Indianapolis, a victim of budget cuts.

Last month, about a half dozen key players — former Superintendent Don Stinson among them — who helped bring the Challenger Learning Center to Decatur Township in 2004 gathered to bid it farewell after just more than a decade of providing simulated space missions for Indiana children.

“As we move on in science, things change,” Stinson said, “but we have a great memory here.”

Decatur’s center is the second in the Indianapolis area to close — Brownsburg shuttered its center in 2012 — leaving the city without a Challenger Center. The nearest now requires a two and a half hour drive to Hammond.

Nobody wanted the centers to close, but changes in state funding in Indiana probably made it inevitable.

Honoring the Challenger crew

An outgrowth of the 1986 Challenger disaster — the shuttle exploded on launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., killing a crew that included the much-touted first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe — there are more than 40 Challenger centers across the country.

McAuliffe, a New Hampshire social studies teacher, was chosen in a national search to be the first teacher astronaut on the doomed mission.

In memory of the crew, Challenger centers aimed to give students a feel for what it’s like to be part of a shuttle mission.

On field trips, students who visit the centers craft and execute a simulated mission, such as launching a probe into a comet. They play roles ranging from mission control monitors to sitting in the pilot seat of a mock shuttle.

“As a principal, having students able to go there, it was truly putting action in learning,” said Matt Prusecki, who is now Decatur’s superintendent. “Students came away learning more but also appreciating an experience they may always remember.”

Tax caps put a squeeze on funding

Managing a Challenger center got tougher for Indiana school districts after 2010.

That year, the Indiana legislature sought to make property taxes, which sometimes shifted up or down unexpectedly for homeowners when their home values changed, more steady.

Tax caps were the result: homeowners could not pay more than one percent of the total assessed value of their property in property taxes.

While this stabilized tax bills, it made funding for some school services that still are paid by property taxes, such as transportation, less stable.

Before the change, the tax rate rose when the assessed value of a home dropped, so schools and local governments could still collect the same amount of money. But with the caps, the tax rate was fixed at one percent, which means revenue might fall behind what schools and government need to support the services they pay for.

When a district hits the maximum amount it can collect in property taxes, money can run short as expenses still grow.

That’s what happened to Decatur. The district could no longer afford to subsidize the center.

“We had to make $20 million in cuts in four years,” Prusecki said.

So two years ago, the district handed the center over to the Central Indiana Educational Service Center.

A long shot plan fails

CIESC’s Executive Director Kevin Caress said his organization, a coalition of 21 school districts, tried to make the center break even.

It set financial benchmarks for the center to cut costs and raise revenue to reduce the $60,000 to $80,000 cost of subsidizing it each year.

“We did not meet those benchmarks even though we made substantial cuts,” Caress said. “The major issue is how do you sustain a center like this? How do you make it work?”

Besides the school funding changes, the slow economy since 2008 also hurt the center’s ability to attract field trips from schools. A half-day session at the center cost $600 for 30 children, with a $100 discount for districts that bought annual memberships.

Tighter school district budgets both from funding changes and the economy meant fewer schools signed up for the experience. But CIESC still had to pay an annual fee to the national Challenger Center organization and foot the bill for expensive upgrades to software and equipment.

As word got out that the center was likely to close, students in some schools began letter writing campaigns and fundraisers, but it was too late.

The center formally closed at the end of May and equipment is now being dismantled and shipped off to be used at other centers around the country.

“It’s a valuable program,” Caress said. “We had great people doing it. But we couldn’t subsidize it any longer.”

School Finance

Why some IPS schools are facing big budget cuts, and others are mostly spared from the pain

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 107 is expected to lose about $230,000 next year, one of the larger cuts in the district.

At campuses across Indianapolis Public Schools, principals are grappling with a painful prospect: cutting hundreds of thousands of dollars from their school budgets. And that may be just the beginning.

The district is looking to cut about $21 million from its $269 million general fund budget for 2018-19, including about $8.9 million that will come from budgets for schools and certified staff such as teachers, according to a preliminary budget document. Officials declined to give school-by-school breakdowns until they are finalized later this summer.

The district initially planned to fill its budget gap by asking voters for nearly $1 billion in extra funding in May, but after the proposal received little support, the board first shrunk and then delayed the request. The cuts that begin next year could continue if the state’s largest district isn’t able to find other savings or win voter support for a referendum to increase taxes and school funding in November.

“We have the hope of a referendum,” said Weston Young, the district’s chief financial manager.

Chalkbeat has the details on what types of schools are expected to lose the most, what schools might cut, and what this means for the future of the district.

Big schools — including high schools — are taking the brunt of the cuts.

When it comes to cutting spending, large schools are carrying more of the burden, according to the preliminary documents. That includes middle and high schools, as well as some elementary schools. At some of the district’s smallest campuses, however, officials say budgets are already too lean for significant cuts.

Indianapolis Public Schools sends money to schools using a formula known as student-based allocation, which gives them funding based on how many students they enroll and student needs. But every school also has a baseline amount of money district officials believe they need to operate.

Small schools that serve wide grade spans, which might only have one class at each grade level, often get extra money to be sure they reach the minimum. In contrast, large campuses typically get enough from the per student formula to be above baseline. On a basic level, the district budget is based around the idea that it costs less per child to educate students in large, efficient schools.

Because of that approach, campuses that were already at minimum funding levels won’t see significant cuts, Young said. On the flip side, however, bigger campuses are shouldering a larger share of the cuts.

That could be bad news for the four high schools that will remain open in the fall. The schools will be among the largest campuses in the district, and they are expected to face significant cuts.

Last month, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told Chalkbeat that cuts would not damage the effort to revamp high schools because, in addition to baseline funding, the schools will have donations from private partners such as Salesforce.

“Obviously, we won’t have all the resources that we’d like to have,” he said, “but we will be in a good position come August of 2018.”

Magnet schools and career and technical education get extra money — and extra cuts.

On top of their regular budgets, choice programs, such as Montessori, International Baccalaureate, and career and technical education, receive millions of extra dollars each year. That spending is also on the chopping block as the district cuts costs.

But because the district had already planned spending on those programs and some areas are easier to reduce than others, cuts won’t be spread evenly, said Aisha Humphries, director of budget and strategy for the district. In Montessori schools, for example, instructional assistants are integral to the model, she said. In order to cut that, the district would have to change the school model.

“When you do budget cuts, it may be that we want to cut equally and make everybody feel the pain equally,” Humphries said, “but you may not be able to do that.”

But there are other areas where the district can more easily cut back, Humphries said, such as by reducing the number of foreign languages offered in middle school.

Schools are giving up technology, teachers, and other staff.

As the district cuts budgets, principals ultimately decide what painful trade offs to make. Under the new budgeting approach the district rolled out this year, principals are given a set amount of money, and they have control over how they spend most it. If a principal wants to make class sizes slightly larger to pay for a school social worker, for example, they can. When it comes to budget cuts, the approach is the same.

“They are still in the driver’s seat,” Young said.

When schools got budgets earlier this year, they were built on the assumption that the district would win the May referendum. But principals knew that additional funding might not come through, and some planned for potential cuts when they created their budgets, Young said.

When principal Jeremy Baugh learned School 107 is expected to lose about $230,000 next year, he already had some potential cuts in mind. The school will cut back on new technology, instructional supplies, and professional development. Baugh also won’t go through with his plan to hire two new educators.

School 107, which enrolls just over 600 students, is expected to have one of the larger budget cuts in the district. But in part because the school is growing and will get more money for those new students, he doesn’t expect to cut current staff.

“We didn’t have to make significant cuts that were impacting staff right now,” Baugh said. “So we felt pretty lucky.”

School Finance

How much are Indianapolis teachers paid? Here are the highest and lowest paid districts in the city

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

As teachers across the country rally for more education funding and higher salaries, policymakers and the public are paying renewed attention to how much educators are paid.

Nationwide, stagnant teacher pay coupled with plentiful well-paying openings in other fields means that it’s even harder for principals and administrators to fill open positions. For some teachers, low pay is one reason they leave the classroom altogether, whether to become administrators or find another career.

In Indiana, cash-strapped districts often struggle to pay for raises even for their current staff — making it difficult to retain teachers. Educators in Indianapolis have lots of schools to choose from, and teachers can increase their pay by heading to nearby districts.

Educators in Indiana school districts made an average of about $48,743 last year, according to the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board. Pay is higher in districts in the state’s capitol, but it varies widely, with educators in the lowest paying district earning about $11,000 less on average than teachers in the top paid district. (The board only collects data on districts with teachers unions so it does not include average pay for teachers in charter schools.)

When teachers with particularly high demand skills switch jobs, they can also boost their earning by moving higher on the pay scale.

Average teacher pay in Marion County 2016-17

Source: Indiana Education Employment Relations Board collective bargaining report. (Image by Sam Park)

One reason why average pay might be higher in some districts than others is because the pay scale is higher. Starting pay in Beech Grove Schools, for example, is $38,000 per year. In Speedway Schools, a district with consistently high pay, teachers earn a minimum of $44,252.

Minimum teacher pay in Marion County 2016-17

Source: Indiana Education Employment Relations Board collective bargaining report. (Image by Sam Park)

The gap is even wider for experienced educators. In Indianapolis Public Schools, the pay scale sets the maximum salary at $72,740. That’s almost $14,000 less than the max pay for teachers in Speedway — $86,702. (Some teachers may earn more because they are still paid based on older pay scales with higher caps.)

Maximum teacher pay in Marion County 2016-17

Source: Indiana Education Employment Relations Board collective bargaining report. (Image by Sam Park)

But there’s another reason why some districts have lower average pay than others — they have more inexperienced teachers. Both Beech Grove and Indianapolis Public Schools have higher floors and ceiling for pay then they did in 2013-2014. Nonetheless, the average pay in those districts has declined, likely because they have more inexperienced teachers with lower salaries.

This year, both districts have relatively high numbers of teachers in their first year, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education. In Indianapolis Public Schools, nearly 10 percent of certified educators are new to the classroom. In both Beech Grove and Warren Township Schools, about 7 percent of educators are new.