Future of Schools

Lawmakers will consider exit strategy for state takeover

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

Lawmakers will try to answer one of the great unsolved mysteries of Indiana’s education policy next month: What happens to a school taken over by the state at the end of the five-year contract signed by an outside group brought in to manage it?

Five persistently failing Indiana schools — four in Indianapolis and one in Gary — were removed from school district control and handed off to be run by companies and non-profit groups in 2012. But while state law lays out a step-by-step process for how state takeover begins, it is silent about what happens next.

Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, this week proposed a solution that could return the schools to the school districts they came from. But a provision that already has raised concerns would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to turn those schools into charter schools, forever severing them from their former districts.

“Converting to a charter is not an option included in state law now,” Miller said. “I felt the Indiana State Board of Education should have that option.”

Miller’s proposal was added this week to Senate Bill 205, which is mostly aimed at adding rules to charter school contracts. The bill passed the Senate Education Committee 12-0 and is headed for a vote in the full Senate next week.

The option for the state to remove a school from district control is part of Public Law 221, passed by the legislature in  1999. The law requires the state to intervene when a school reaches six consecutive years of F grades under Indiana’s A to F grading system.

That happened for the first time in 2011 with seven schools. Under the law, public hearings were held on each school before the board considered five intervention options:

  • Revising the school’s improvement plan.
  • Merging the school with a higher scoring school.
  • Following the Indiana Department of Education’s recommendations to assign a “lead partner” organization to offer specialized assistance, such as teacher training or data analysis.
  • Following options proposed at a public meeting, including closing the school.
  • Initiating state takeover.

Two of the schools,  IPS’s George Washington and Broad Ripple high schools, were assigned lead partners under the third option. Five others — Gary’s Roosevelt High School along with IPS’s Emma Donnan Middle School and Manual, Howe and Arlington high schools — entered state takeover.

An outside group was brought in to run each school. For-profit companies took over at four schools: Tennessee-based EdisonLearning at Roosevelt and Florida-based Charter Schools USA at Donnan, Manual and Howe. Tindley Accelerated Schools, a non-profit charter school operator based in Indianapolis, took over Arlington.

Each group signed a five-year contract with the state board, including a “transition year” to start, during which the companies only observed and planned for the first year of takeover. The contracts are now in their third years and expire at the end of the 2015-16 school year. Last year the schools made modest progress on test scores. All were once again rated F by the state.

Despite the specific process laid out in Public Law 221 for how school could end up in state takeover, the law was missing something big — what happens at the end of the takeover contract.

“Lots of folks have recognized that we need to talk about this,” Miller said. “We never put in an exit strategy.”

A 2012 bill would have put takeover schools in their own category as “independent” schools with charter-like rules allowing them to be permanently separate from their former school districts. But that bill did not make it to a floor vote.

This year’s Senate Bill 205 instead gives the state board three options:

  • Return the school to the school district.
  • Convert it into a charter school.
  • Revisit the five options in Public Law 221.

The third option could allow the state board to renew its contract with the takeover organization, or make other choices like closing or merging the school or assigning a lead partner.

Libby Ciezniak, IPS’s statehouse lobbyist, said the takeover schools should ultimately return to the district.

“There’s always been a lot of uncertainty about this, but they’re still IPS schools,” she said.

While takeover schools are managed with IPS oversight, the district still owns and maintains the buildings and grounds. Permanently reassigning district-owned real estate to an outside group would be complicated, she said.

IPS also wants to know more about how the takeover schools would be evaluated at the end of their contracts and what factors would decide if they return to the district or not. Senate Bill 205 is not specific enough, Cierzniak said.

It states: “In making a determination under this section, the state board may consider all relevant factors, including overall performance of the school corporation and the special management team.”

IPS wants to know exactly what “relevant factors” will be considered.

“The approach taken in the legislation seems to make sense,” she said, “but we’d like to know the criteria.”


IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.