Future of Schools

State board rules IPS can manage Arlington, share Donnan

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Arlington High School is one of three schools the administration recommends closing

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.


Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.