April 25, 2023

IPS building upgrades hinge on $410M tax referendum on May ballot

Eric Weddle / WFYI

Eric Weddle / WFYI

The Indianapolis Public Schools district is asking voters to approve a $410 million capital referendum in the May 2 primary election. The funds would pay for improvements at nearly two dozen buildings, including the shuttered Thomas Carr Howe Community High School in the Irvington neighborhood and the former Broad Ripple High School. 

The construction is part of the district’s overhaul plan, Rebuilding Stronger, which aims to boost poor academic performance by creating middle schools for grades 6-8 and provide similar academic and athletic offerings in all communities.

The referendum

If approved, the local property tax levy for the referendum would be no more than $0.2066 per $100 of assessed value. That would add $3.18 per month in property taxes to median-valued property owners.

“We spent nearly two years engaging with stakeholders on what matters to the most when it comes to education, from academics to facilities to extracurricular experiences that we want for students,” said Alessia Johnson, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools.

The majority of IPS buildings in poor or unsatisfactory condition are elementary schools, according to a district report. If the referendum is approved, the district would be able to construct a new $34.6 million elementary school to replace the current Joyce Kilmer School 69 facility on the northeast side of Indianapolis. 

Johnson said the referendum would also allow the district to bring all elementary and middle school buildings to good condition — meaning only routine maintenance is required instead of substantial improvements. 

New funds would also help transform former high schools into middle schools with updated athletics facilities: $39 million for Broad Ripple High School and $39.8 million for Thomas Carr Howe buildings.

Facility improvements 

If the referendum is approved, the district is projected to spend roughly $39 million on Thomas Carr Howe — nearly $33 million for building improvements and more than $6 million for outdoor athletic upgrades. 

The Howe facility initially became a high school 85 years ago. In recent times, it’s faced dramatic changes. The building was closed in 1995, reopened in 2000, then taken over by the Indiana Department of Education in 2012, and closed again after IPS regained control of it in 2020.

Now the district plans to open an early learning center for the 2023-2024 school year, and a 6-8 grade middle school beginning in fall 2024. Middle schoolers will be taught using an international baccalaureate school model, which allows children to learn through inquiry.

Bill Murphy, IPS’ chief operations officer, said a significant portion of the referendum funds will address building deficiencies. Those improvements include updates to the roof, HVAC system, plumbing and electricity. The district will also install new pipes, repave sidewalks, expand some of the outdoor green spaces and increase safety measures by installing security card access and cameras. 

Despite all of the upgrades, Murphy said the district is doing its best to preserve the original building. 

“Aesthetically, it's not a building that's in bad condition,” Murphy said. “The places where we have to do the investment are more the interior — what's behind the walls. It means that there's really rich opportunity for the new school leader and the new school community to make this space their own while also capitalizing on some of the really nice aspects of the architecture.”

Murphy said the construction is needed because the quality of a student’s learning environment can impact student performance. 

“[The operations team creates] the preconditions for the success of all other aspects of a school,” Murphy said. “Children are cold, children are hungry, if children are late to school because our buses were behind — those all limit their ability to learn and to thrive. And so we want to make sure that the capital investment here makes this environment as conducive to learning as possible.” 

Murphy also said some of the most expensive improvements will go toward additions to the baseball fields and providing adequate exterior lighting. 

Darren Thomas, district director of athletics for IPS, said the Rebuilding Stronger plan will allow the district to provide middle schoolers with most of the roughly 17 sports offered in high school, such as girls flag football. Middle schools have had access to many of these sports, but have been unable to fill all the spots on a team due to low enrollment at schools. 

Thomas said the district is trying to implement equitable athletic plans to support students of different genders and comply with Title IX by providing dugouts, locker rooms and lighting that are the same quality as the boy’s areas, and ensuring the girls have equal access to concessions and restrooms. 

Contact WFYI education reporter Elizabeth Gabriel at egabriel@wfyi.org. Follow on Twitter: @_elizabethgabs.

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