Future of Schools

Colorado education department intends to create turnaround network

The State Department of Education hopes to lend more direct help to Colorado’s struggling campuses by forming a network of turnaround schools, it announced Tuesday in a letter to superintendents.

The network, which will be the first of its kind in Colorado, will offer intensive support directly to school leaders in some of the state’s lowest-performing schools. Previously, most of the state’s support has been targeted at the district level, providing training and resources to administrators, not principals and teachers.

Colorado’s Turnaround Network, “will be a highly-collaborative and accountable endeavor between local schools, their districts and the Colorado Department of Education,” according to a copy of the letter provided to Chalkbeat Colorado.

The department hopes to work with eight to 12 schools in just a couple of districts its first year. The aim is to not only improve student academic performances within the network’s schools, but also to provide support and build each district’s ability to provide tools and techniques to other low-performing schools within the participating districts’ boundaries, said Peter Sherman, the state education department’s executive director of school and district performance.

As of December, there are currently 190 schools rated as either “turnaround” or “priority improvement.” About 75 percent of those schools do not operate in school districts on the accountability clock.

Because of Colorado’s constitutionally protected local control of schools, schools will have to opt into the network, Sherman said. The department’s model is more akin to Connecticut’s Commissioner’s Network, which has partnered with 11 schools and is expanding, than Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has the authority to take over low-performing schools and currently runs 16 schools, Sherman said.

Since 2010, the state has linked its accreditation of districts to an annual review of student performance on state standardized tests and post-secondary preparedness. Districts that receive either a “turnaround” or “priority improvement” rating on the district performance framework have five years to improve or lose accreditation.

While the state does not directly accredit schools — that’s the job of local school boards — it does similarly rate schools. Schools, like districts, rated as either “turnaround” or “priority improvement” are placed on the state’s watch list. If schools do not make enough improvement within five years the state board may make a series of recommendations to the local school board including turning the school over to a private organization like a charter network or closing the campus. If the local governing board does not heed the state board’s advice, the entire district may face a lowered accreditation rating.

Neither the districts nor schools enrolled in the network will be let off the so-called “accountability clock.”

“Our goal is to accelerate achievement so we’ll be able to get them off the clock because of improved student achievement,” Sherman said.

If enough progress isn’t made in enough time to beat the clock, Sherman said, his department would at least be able to stand with those schools in the network as the state and local board negotiate the campuses future.

“We would be able to advocate for [those schools] to some degree,” Sherman said. “We’ll feel comfortable saying the district has taken the right improvement actions and that we’ve exhausted everything we could.”

The network’s program will focus on four areas: culture, school design, personnel development, and district relations. One of the many requirements to enroll in the network, according to the letter, is a set of agreements between the state and the districts the schools reside in.

“We will negotiate with each district

assurances that they will create the right conditions for success for each participating school,” Sherman said.

The state will have no official say in curriculum, personnel or budget, Sherman said. But he hopes by enrolling in the network, schools will be provided autonomy and flexibility by it’s district.

The network will be funded by existing funds allocated to the state department, Sherman said. And his office will continue to offer its support to districts on the accountability clock.

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.