Who Is In Charge

Ritz's education department faces questions about transparency

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz is surrounded by reporters after an Indiana State Board of Education meeting last year.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, whose first high profile political battle was a lawsuit charging the Indiana State Board of Education was blocking public access, is facing questions about her own commitment to open government.

In the past year, Ritz has faced three complaints or inquiries from journalists and others that forced changes in practices at the Indiana Department of Education or brought cautions from Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, including twice this summer.

The most recent was an “informal inquiry” from WFYI Public Media’s education reporter, Eric Weddle. An inquiry is a request for help from Britt that does not constitute a formal complaint.

Weddle raised concerns about the education department’s failure to provide meeting locations and agendas for a state advisory council on the education of children with disabilities. The information would be provided, the council’s website said, if an email was sent requesting it.

But Weddle’s two email requests went unanswered for nearly a month, he said.

Weddle said he thought about how hard it would be for parents of disabled children or community members who cared about the issue to get information about the committee’s meetings if a professional reporter was having so much trouble.

“That just seems like a lot of hoops to jump through for, say, a parent who is already trying to navigate the special education world for their kid,” he said. “I emailed twice for meeting information and got no response. I doubt many parents or members of the the public would keep trying after that.”

But Ritz’s communications director, David Galvin, said the department has a good track record when it comes to providing public access.

“Our small staff has done a good job,” he said. “The superintendent’s office is known to be one of the more transparent offices. I think the superintendent is quite happy with the way we support and distribute information.”

In his July 17 opinion on the case, Britt said the education department conceded it had failed to respond to Weddle, citing a problem with the email system and blaming a change in the committee chair for creating a confusion about when the group would meet. Britt urged the department to publish agendas online.

In a separate case Britt ruled on last month, Rod Gardin of Kouts, near Valparaiso, complained about the department’s slow response to his request for copies of any testing concerns or security violations reports for the 2015 ISTEP test.

Britt sided with the department on technical questions of whether its initial response was quick enough and was sympathetic to education officials’ argument that the request required a time consuming extra effort. But Britt also said nearly 90 days to fill Gardin’s request was a long delay.

Timeliness was also the basis for a complaint by Abdul-Hakim Shabazz filed last September, but in his case it took the education department more than a year to fill his request for copies of emails sent and received by education department staff. Shabazz runs the IndyPolitics.org website and hosts a radio show.

The request was not filled after after Britt ruled the department violated state law.

“A year is way out of the time frame,” Britt said. “The longest I ever said would be OK is six months. And I think even that is pushing the boundaries. Six months is an awfully long time.”

Galvin was less sympathetic to Shabazz, who he described as “a political radio host pundit who is constantly attacking the superintendent.” But he conceded the department perhaps could have done better in the other two cases.

“If a couple have slipped through, we regret that,” Galvin said. “We definitely want to try to turn information around as best we can.”

The public access counselor is an office many states don’t have. Britt’s post is appointed by the governor to assist citizens with problems accessing public meetings or documents, and he rules on questions about whether public offices have broken state open records or open meetings laws. In general, documents and data held by the state and meetings of public boards are required to be open for public inspection or attendance, except for reasons the legislature has specifically spelled out.

Britt does not have the power to enforce his rulings. If public offices still don’t comply with his decisions, those making the complaints must ask a court to intervene.

Three complaints in a year about the education department isn’t extreme, Britt said. The department receives a large volume of request for records and data, he said, which can slow down its response time.

State departments that receive the most access complaints are usually those that deal with criminal defendants and prisoners. The Department of Corrections had 30 complaints or inquiries to Britt’s office, and the state police had nine, Britt said. But the education department had the third most.

“I don’t think it’s systemic,” Britt said. “I think they just have a lot going on, and they’re short staffed. Things fall through the cracks.”

Besides the formal inquiries and complaints, other news organizations have sometimes struggled to get access to information from the education department, including Chalkbeat.

For Chalkbeat’s April series on English language learning in Indiana, its information request for data on the number of children learning English as a new language and other student factors in each Indiana school was never completely filled, even after repeated email, phone and in-person follow-ups over 47 days. While some of the requested data was provided, Chalkbeat eventually obtained the rest through public sources online without the department’s help.

In Chalkbeat’s case, the department also blamed email problems, saying an attachment had failed to come through. But the attachment was never sent after that explanation was given.

Shabazz said he filed his complaint because he was tired of waiting so long, and also because he thought it was hypocritical that Ritz demanded the state board be more open but seemed not to expect the department she leads to do the same.

“Glenda filed a suit against the State Board of Education complaining about openness and transparency, and they can’t even comply with the law in a timely manner themselves,” Shabazz said.

Ritz sued the other 10 members of the board in 2013 after they all signed a letter to lawmakers asking to have a different state agency calculate school A-to-F grades because they thought the education department was moving too slowly.

Ritz’s suit argued that the group decision to author the letter should have been made in public and that the email conversations that led to the letter constituted an illegal private meeting. The suit was dismissed, but a later suit by four citizens resulted in a $15,000 cash settlement from the state board.

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: