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IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public School Board members asked their staff to solve a tricky math problem Wednesday: If only 7 percent of IPS students pay for their textbooks, is it worth it for the district to make them free to everyone?

The question arose after the district’s legislative lobbyist, Libby Cierzniak, warned board members about a possible push by state lawmakers to change the way poor children become eligible for free textbooks.

Under current law, children who come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch automatically receive textbooks — a cost that the state helps districts cover, Cierzniak said. To qualify, a family of four must have an annual income no greater than $43,500.

A change, which Cierzniak said is being floated by some lawmakers as a possible new bill for the upcoming legislative session, could add an additional step to that process. Instead of receiving textbooks automatically, families who receive free or reduced price lunch would have to fill out forms verifying their incomes before they can receive the textbooks.

Families can qualify for free lunch and free textbooks in several ways. They can demonstrate their incomes, for example, by showing they have already qualified for other poverty programs like food stamps. Most students qualify that way, IPS staff said. But some families sign up for free lunch by simply stating their incomes without providing proof.

That bothers some lawmakers, who fear it leaves an opening for fraud, Cierzniak. Those legislators pushed for the same revision in the 2013 session, but their effort was not successful. Cierzniak said she heard the attempt is being revived again for the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January. The change would affect the 85 percent of IPS’s roughly 30,000 who receive free and reduced priced lunch.

Cierzniak said IPS should lobby against any bill aiming to make that change. She argued most IPS families already provide proof of income in order to qualify for the federal food stamp program. For IPS, where poverty is growing quickly, requiring those families to provide an additional proof could create a burden, she argued. Over 15 years, the percent of children in IPS eligible for food stamps has jumped almost 25 percentage points to 68.2 percent of students, with more than a third of that growth coming since the start of 2008 recession.

Any new law ought to allow families who have already proved their income through food stamps or another program to automatically qualify, Cierzniak said. Otherwise it creates a huge amount of unnecessary paperwork for IPS and for poor families that could end up preventing deserving children from getting free books only because they have failed to fill out extra documents.

“It would be a real problem for IPS, requiring the families of 20,000 kids to jump through hoops when they’ve already been through the food stamp process,” she said.

Board member Annie Roof had a different question: how many children are actually paying for textbooks in a district with so few wealthy families?

IPS staff said roughly half of those children not on free or reduced-price lunch — or only about 7 percent of the district’s enrollment — do not ultimately pay for their books and are turned over to collection, which rarely results in IPS receiving much money. Those families that fail to pay are often “working poor,” board member Diane Arnold said, who are burdened with obligations like child care costs that leave little money to cover textbooks.

That means only roughly 7 percent of all IPS students generally pay their textbook bills, IPS staff said. As a result, the total revenue the district receives from textbook sales could be less than $300,000 for a district with a budget of $263 million annually.

“Would it be more cost effective to say if you come to IPS and don’t qualify, we’ll pay your textbooks?” board member Annie Roof asked. By eliminating the cost of manpower to send letters in pursuit of outstanding bills and for hiring collection companies, Roof reasoned, IPS might be able to save money and offer a benefit to families that charter schools and neighboring districts don’t offer.

Ferebee said he would have staff research the costs and benefits of such a move and report back to the board.

“I think we have to have more conversation about it,” he said.

The legislative committee meets monthly to discuss how IPS deals with state laws and policies. With the 2014 legislative session coming in January, Cierzniak listed several other issues the district should watch for. Among them: Laws that might compel school districts to share space or sell school buildings to charter schools, a possible expansion of public support for preschool, changes to the accountability system and alterations to tax law.

UPDATE: For more background, Community Newspaper Holdings’ statehouse reporter Maureen Hayden wrote in May about legislative changes on textbook charges and steps taken last session to tighten up the program’s rules.