Future of Schools

Tindley's woes, and CEO's departure, raise tough questions for charter schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Marcus Robinson has long had his critics, but in many ways, his name has been synonymous with the best successes of Indiana’s charter school movement.

Robinson was the driving force behind Tindley Accelerated Schools, the top-scoring charter school network in The Meadows neighborhood of Indianapolis. Tindley post some of the highest test scores in the city despite enrolling many children who must overcome poverty-related barriers to learning.

So revelations over the past two months of financial troubles at Tindley, including questionable travel expenses incurred by Robinson, have rippled far beyond the school.

Robinson said last week he would step down by the end of the school year and leave Tindley, but the controversy raises broader questions for charter schools in Indiana’s school choice epicenter.  Among them:

  • Will the departure of a key leader from one of Indiana’s strongest charter school groups weaken the movement? Robinson’s record and reputation made him one Indiana’s most respected charter school voices. But his last chapter at Tindley is now already serving as an example of the worst fears of charter critics about the potential misuse of public dollars intended to serve children.
  • Will Robinson resurface somewhere else in Indiana’s charter school world? Robinson said his immediate goal is to finish a Columbia University doctorate he has been traveling to New York to pursue, but his next steps after that are in doubt.
  • Are the well-regarded Tindley schools in trouble? The immediate road ahead looks bumpy. School officials pledged that they will solve their money problems, but further expansion plans — which once included ambitions for 14 Tindley schools by 2023 — have been halted.

Tindley champion David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit that advocates for educational change, believes Tindley’s setback will be short lived.

“The future is extremely bright, by far brighter than it’s ever been since I’ve been doing this work,” Harris said. “Tindley will not only weather this, they will be a big part of it going forward.”

But Joel Hand of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, a group that has lobbied against expanding school choice, said he hopes Robinson’s resignation is seen as a cautionary tale about the potential excesses of charter schools.

“The use of these dollars for charter schools is supposed to be geared toward educating the children,” he said. “Maybe this is the ultimate accountability for Marcus Robinson and Tindley.”

A high-scoring, fast-growing charter network

For Tindley, it’s not just high test scores that have made the network a charter school darling. Robinson and his team have raised hopes that successful schools can be the centerpiece of a wider effort to improve struggling neighborhoods.

Since the first Tindley school opened in 2004 at the site of abandoned grocery store, The Meadows has seen crime fall and community investments grow as more kids attended, and graduated from, the now six-school network.

“It’s a transformed place,” Harris said. “The ripple effect will be felt for many generations in that community. They had a fabulous vision and a fabulous team, but Marcus was the one that made that come to a reality. What he accomplished is really extraordinary.”

Then-Mayor Greg Ballard hailed the school-led overhaul of The Meadows as a model for other neighborhoods to follow. By its fifth year, the school was exceeding state averages on standardized tests, graduating three-quarters of its students and sending most of them to college. A waiting list of families that wanted to enroll began to lengthen and some families were even moving into The Meadows to be closer to the school.

What followed was more than $60 million in investment in The Meadows, Tindley board member John Neighbors said. That includes the schools, new apartments, a wellness center and a YMCA.

“Had the schools not been successful, it would have been much harder to do that,” Neighbors said.

None of it could have happened without Robinson, Neighbors said. The school was actually rejected the first time it applied for a charter and was only able to secure one after Robinson, then a Cathedral High School teacher, came on board.

But as much as Robinson’s fans credit his leadership with building Tindley into a success, his recent choices have gotten much of the blame for the school’s suddenly murky future.

Financial woes come to light

Robinson has had to explain his own questionable travel spending at the same time he was pushing an aggressive plan to build new schools.

It was that expansion — since 2012, Tindley has added two middle schools and three elementary schools — that helped set the stage for the money problems the network faces today.

The new schools were made possible by a $4.5 million gift from a donor, Robinson said. It was helped along by consistently strong test scores that kept attracting more students. The four schools that have been open long enough to qualify for state grades earned two A’s and two B’s last year.

But Robinson and the Tindley board failed to anticipate the intense competition the new schools would face from a flood of new charter schools. Ballard, who left office in January, nearly doubled the number of city-sponsored charter schools in his tenure to more than 30, leaving many schools — not just Tindley — scrambling to fill their classrooms with enough students to pay their bills.

Tindley Acclerated Schools CEO Marcus Robinson agreed to take over management of Arlington High School, which was taken over from IPS by the state in 2012.
PHOTO: Matt Detrich/The Indianapolis Star
Tindley Acclerated Schools CEO Marcus Robinson agreed to take over management of Arlington High School, which was taken over from IPS by the state in 2012.

By 2014, Tindley was in enough of a financial squeeze that Robinson abruptly ended a contract with the state to manage Arlington High School, a former Indianapolis Public School that was taken over by the state in 2012, and Tindley pulled out at the end of that school year. He blamed the state for turning down his request for more aid, saying running Arlington had gotten too costly.

The school’s problems intensified later in 2014 when the Indianapolis NAACP criticized the network for its high expulsion rate, perhaps dissuading some families from enrolling their children. Tindley had expelled students at a much higher rate than other schools in the city but Robinson insisted tough discipline was not negotiable in order to ensure stable learning environments.

And by last December, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported a series bleak developments: a $2.8 million cash shortfall, a former treasurer who described the organization as “broke” and a $8.7 million bailout from a state loan fund that equated to nearly half its annual budget.

With all of that going on, reports of Robinson’s spending caught even some of his supporters by surprise.

Former Treasurer Eric Stovall told the Indianapolis Business Journal some of Robinson’s travel expenses, including $10,000 to stay in expensive hotels during several visits to New York and sometimes flying first class were, in his view, “unethical” for the leader of a cash-strapped charter school network.

But Robinson insists he violated no rules and would have paid the extra costs for the more expensive airline tickets and hotel rooms had anyone asked him to.

“Tindley has one of the best charter boards in the country,” he said. “They are very astute and serious about their fiduciary duty. They violated no laws and broke no ethics rules, nor have any of their staff in how they have traveled.”

Travel expenses raise concerns

Board member Neighbors said the board has put together a committee stocked with financial experts that he is confident will craft a plan to lead the school back to fiscal stability.

“The board needs to assure the financial integrity of the school,” he said. “We will conquer these issues if we can keep the kind of people we have in place and keep the parents’ confidence, which we will do.”

But it might be a while before anyone talks about expansion again.

“I don’t think there is additional money to fund growth in this market,” Robinson said.

Neighbors isn’t placing blame on Robinson. In fact, he argued that it’s a mistake to conflate Robinson’s travel expenses, which he said were noticed and addressed more than a year ago, with Tindley’s more recent financial troubles.

“We didn’t find any impropriety in Marcus’ conduct,” Neighbors said. “Maybe he should have thought more carefully about something like this. But he didn’t do it every week. It was a few instances of first class travel and staying in hotels that maybe he shouldn’t have.”

Marcus Robinson, CEO of Tindley Schools, (center) addresses the Indiana State Board of Education in 2014.
PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Marcus Robinson, CEO of Tindley Schools, (center) addresses the Indiana State Board of Education in 2014.

But Hand, whose organization seeks to defend what it sees as attacks on traditional public schools, said it’s difficult to see public education dollars flowing to an administrator’s lavish travel spending — something he said seems far more likely in a charter network than a public school district.

“I’d be shocked if there was any traditional public school administrator spending their money similarly,” he said. “The vast majority of public schools are cutting all travel for teachers and administrators and for professional development. To hear a story about charter school where the head of school is making these kinds of expenditures is very troubling.”

To Hand, Robinson’s spending, and Tindley’s deep financial woes, demonstrate one of the central dangers that critics of charter schools have long warned about: that relaxed oversight makes the public dollars ripe for misuse.

“Freeing up schools from certain regulations is not a bad thing,” Hand said. “But if its not accompanied with strict oversight and high levels of accountability we can have problems just like this.”

Whereas a public school is overseen by an elected school board accountable to the public, charter school oversight is more complex. Tindley is a private, nonprofit organization with a board of directors that employs its staff, but it also is monitored by the mayor’s office, which serves as its sponsor.

Kristin Hines, the city’s charter school director, noted that the city had called for Tindley to tighten up its financial practices following some recent reviews and audits.

“We continue to routinely and regularly oversee the board and the school’s financial performance, she said. “We have held the school responsible through annual financial reports in the past. We will continue to hold the school accountable to rigorous financial standard and high expectations with regard to board oversight.”

But Hand said the oversight in this case seemed to leave a lot to be desired.

“Doesn’t this kind of speak to the lack of accountability and oversight that is really there for many charter schools?” he said. “The use of these dollars for charter schools is supposed to be geared toward educating the children.”

A doctorate and an uncertain future

Robinson said the decision to leave Tindley was his alone and was not a result of the network’s financial woes.

“My top priority is finishing this doctorate I started four and a half years ago,” he said. “There was just no way I could do that at the helm of Tindley. The rigors are too much.”

Part of his motivation to finish, he said, is to reinforce with his actions the schools’ mantra for their students: They need to finish what they start academically.

“My first priority is to be a role model for what I expect from kids,” Robinson said.

After that? He’s not sure.

“It will definitely be about kids,” he said.

Robinson has two young children. He’s not necessarily looking to move on from Indianapolis. But he wouldn’t rule it out.

“I would hope my next opportunity would be here,” he said. “But I’m open to whatever.”

Neighbors said he wishes Robinson would have stayed on.

“What’s regrettable, and I hesitate to say this, what we’ve experienced over the last several months created enough stress in Marcus’ own mind to cause him to evaluate his situation and make the decision that he made,” Neighbors said. “I am personally disappointed that we move into a new era without Marcus but I am encouraged by what we have in place.”

 

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned focusing energy on what is under negotiation now: ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.