Indiana

IPS shocker: $30 million deficit was phony

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

The $30 million deficit Indianapolis Public Schools has been bemoaning for nearly a year doesn’t exist, new Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said today.

In fact, Ferebee told the school board, IPS ended 2013 with an $8.4 million surplus.

Based on his own analysis, corroborated by the district’s attorneys and an accountant, Ferebee concluded the deficit was a phantom and speculated that IPS’s prior administration “intentionally overstated expenses to protect our cash balance,” he said.

“I’m at a point now where I feel like I have enough information to confirm that we don’t have a structural deficit,” he said. “I think it’s important to be transparent with the community.”

The revelation comes as IPS approaches its budget-making season and may instantly relieve the need for drastic cuts the school board was expected to consider to try to rein in what it believed to be massive overspending. In other words, it could keep schools open, save teachers’ jobs and keep programs that benefit students from being cut.

“I sought counsel from our legal counsel and also the CPA of our legal firm,” Ferebee said. “They said, ‘you’re not crazy. We see some of the same things.’ ”

In recent years under former Superintendent Eugene White, the district made nearly annual announcements of deficits, which led to layoffs, pay freezes and cuts in programs and services for students. Ferebee said he believed those reports of deficits were designed to quietly keep a strong cash balance to cover any unexpected expenses that might otherwise be difficult to address during the school year. Board members and the public were led to believe IPS was falling short financially, he said. White and former interim Superintendent Peggy Hinckley said late Tuesday they were skeptical of Ferebee’s analysis.

Ferebee said he believed the practice went back years. Without naming names he also said he expected unspecified “personnel changes” would be one of the results of his investigation.

Last year, interim Superintendent Peggy Hinckley raised alarms about the deficit, suggesting IPS would have to consider closing as many as 10 schools to get its spending under control. Hinckley, who was replaced by Ferebee in September, predicted IPS would have to tap reserve funds to make it through this school year.

But Ferebee said he discovered a disconnect when he began digging into IPS’s financial position during the district’s winter break in December. The numbers didn’t add up, he said.

What he found, Ferebee said, was the district’s budgeting system was entirely disconnected from its actual spending and income. To make the budget, Ferebee said, IPS used estimated revenues and included in its spending plan a host of programs and initiatives that were more speculative than real.

For example, Ferebee said IPS included in its budget in recent years the creation of a science and technology magnet high school, setting aside dollars for a school that was never launched. The school board, he said, was unaware that this money was not being spent, even at year’s end. Board members were never shown the difference between what budgeted and what was actually spent.

IPS’s budget projected revenue of $244 million and $274 million in spending for the calendar year that just ended in December of 2013. The $30 million difference was the deficit that district officials repeatedly said since last spring needed to be closed, and which prompted Hinckley’s call for school closings.

But at the end of the year, Ferebee said, the actual spending number was quite different. While revenue was close to the projection at $246.2 million, spending was much lower at only $237.8 million, resulting in an $8.4 million surplus, not a deficit.

“I had a lot of emotions,” Ferebee said of his reaction once he was certain his numbers were right. “It was very disappointing for me that we were communicating we had a budget deficit when we actually didn’t.”

A report on IPS’s operations released last month by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce referenced the budgeting problem and recommended moving toward a budget based on actual numbers instead of projections. Ferebee said the plan going forward is for monthly reports to the board on actual spending and revenue compared to the budget projections for both.

While the vanishing deficit may be hard to explain to the community, it’s also a golden opportunity to demonstrate a new level of transparency about the district’s decision making, Ferebee said.

For students and teachers, Ferebee said a surplus instead of a deficit means IPS likely will not face school closings or layoffs this year. Ferebee said IPS is entering talks with unions about revamping its compensation system, and the surplus means raises at least could be considered. Most district employees have not had a raise in five years beyond automatic hikes under union contracts that reward added years of experience and additional education credits earned.

For parents and students, it also means IPS can look at how to make changes to try to improve learning, not just focus on ways to save money, Ferebee said.

“This is an opportunity for us to be more strategic in our efforts in terms of how we support students and families and how we improve student outcomes,” he said. “We have a long way to go as it relates to improving student achievement. Knowing that we don’t have a structural deficit definitely opens doors of opportunity for how we support our students.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.