Indianapolis Public Schools today gained back a measure of control over two of its former schools that have been run independently after state takeover in 2012.

It’s going too far to say that IPS gets the schools back. The Indiana State Board of Education made clear in its meeting today that it considers Arlington High School and Emma Donnan Middle School still technically separate from the district and under state takeover even while approving the district’s proposals to help run them.

But the district can fairly claim to earned back a measure of control and, after a painful period in which IPS leaders were essentially deemed untrustworthy to run its most troubled schools, the implicit confidence of state board members.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the district has earned renewed faith from the state board by getting its financial house in order and raising test scores since he took over in 2013.

“I think it clearly is a sign of confidence,” he said. “There’s also public-facing evidence of progress. You see that in our performance. A third of our school increased their letter grades and eight schools had a two-letter grade increase.”

In the case of Arlington, the school’s new management structure will be virtually equivalent to any other district school. Ferebee and the IPS staff will manage all decisions and regain total control over the building’s operations.

The only differences from other IPS schools are that IPS the district hired a consultant — at the state board’s insistence — to provide advice and support and the state board reserves the right to quickly step in to change the arrangement if it is unhappy with the school’s direction at the end of the 2015-16 school year.

Even so, the arrangement is unique among the state’s five state takeover schools. IPS will be the only manager of a school in state takeover that does not have an explicit contract with the state board.

Even so, state board members insisted they retain ultimate authority over Arlington.

“I think sometimes there has been a misperception that we were in and now we’re out,” state board member Dan Elsener said. “We are still, as a board, responsible for the performance of the school but we are changing the operator to the district. We are not washing our hands of this.”

If the state board had fully released Arlington from state takeover, it would have forfeited the authority to change the school’s manager to an outside group unless Arlington again earned six straight years of F grades for low test scores.

Six F grades was the trigger in 2011 that empowered the state board to take over Arlington, Donnan Middle School and Howe and Manual High Schools from IPS under state law for the first time. Roosevelt High School in Gary is also being managed independently under state takeover. Donnan, Howe and Manual continue to be managed independent of IPS by the Florida-based company Charter Schools USA.

But for Donnan, IPS also won a greater role today.

CSUSA has been frustrated with the middle school, which serves grades 7 and 8, asking in the past to add lower grades with the goal of getting kids sooner before they have fallen as far behind as some Donnan students. But the state board ruled Indiana law does not permit changes in the grade configuration for schools in state takeover.

So CSUSA and IPS forged a plan to serve both their goals: the school will be able to add the elementary grades as the company had asked and the school district gets to share oversight.

To make that happen, the two forged a separate contract to jointly manage Donnan and asked the state board to approve two changes to the state takeover plan.

The state board first extended its two-year contract with CSUSA to allow it to manage Donnan’s middle school operation through 2020.

Separately, IPS and CSUSA will make use of a 2013 law, resulted that year from House Bill 1321, which gave the district special flexibility to partner with outside companies to manage its schools. Through that deal, IPS and Donnan can create a separate elementary school within the building. The elementary school will be an IPS school and the district will hire CSUSA to run it also.

The goal, Ferebee said, is for the partnership with CSUSA to continue long term. Eventually he envisions the middle school exiting state takeover and the entire K to 8 school managed by CSUSA but fully under IPS control without the state board playing any role.

“It is our hope that ultimately it would transition to some type of long term relationship between IPS and Charter Schools USA,” Ferebee said.

IPS’s road to regaining control at Arlington and Donnan rolled through a series of twists and turns that began with the sudden decision last summer by Tindley Schools, an Indianapolis-based charter school network, to back out of its contract with the state to manage Arlington.

Tindley officials had asked for a boost in state aid to help run the school and shocked state board members by announcing it would pull out of Arlington at the end of this school year when the board balked at giving Arlington more money.

That sparked talks with Ferebee, who proposed repatriating Arlington to IPS. In December, Ferebee hailed what he thought was the state board’s blessing for Arlington to exit state takeover, only to have the board insist in February it did not plan to release the school entirely.

Separately, IPS’s new flexibility under House Bill 1321 rules led to talks with CSUSA about whether such a partnership could be used to achieve its goal of expanding Donnan to elementary school grades.

Negotiations between the two were laborious, in part because the state board asked for changes in the arrangement.
Ferebee said the IPS school board will be asked to approve the Donnan contract later this month.