Ferebee's predecessors: Not so fast

IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and board member Gayle Cosby at Tuesday's meeting. (Scott Elliott)

Two predecessors to Indianapolis Public Schools’ Superintendent Lewis Ferebee are raising questions about his analysis of the district’s financial situation, with one saying he got it wrong when he said the district won’t have to cut costs this year.

On Tuesday, Ferebee dropped a bombshell when he reported to the school board that a looming $30 million deficit was fantasy. Ferebee said the shortfall, which was the basis for more than 100 teacher layoffs as part of $10 million in cuts last spring, resulted from a slew of false assumptions that inflated the district’s projected spending.

Ferebee said he believed annual 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.

More than $40 million allocated in the $274 million total IPS budget for 2013 — about 15 percent — was never spent, Ferebee said. The $30 million projected deficit instead turned into a surplus of more than $8 million added to IPS’s cash balance at the end of December, he said.

But Peggy Hinckley, interim superintendent for six months before Ferebee came on in September, said she worried that Ferebee was jumping to conclusions. Ferebee, a first time superintendent who was chief of staff of Durham, N.C., schools in his last job, told reporters Tuesday the calculations that led him to dismiss the deficit were his own, although he said they were checked by the district’s lawyers and an accountant.

“He has no experience as a superintendent and no experience with funding in Indiana,” Hinckley said. “I don’t understand how they could have fewer expenditures by that much money.”

Even if the budget situation is less dire than she thought, Hinckley said IPS still should be aggressively cutting back, especially by closing schools. She remains convinced IPS must prepare for the likelihood of lower enrollment, losses resulting from state funding changes and high costs for half-empty buildings would continue to eat into its bottom line.

“If they make no cuts they will have half their cash balance left at the end of 2014,” she said. “If they do nothing the next year, they will have no money by December of 2015.”

Board members, however, stood strongly behind Ferebee.

“We are not spending ourselves out of business,” school board President Annie Roof said. “We feel we actually have the cash balance that will allow us to function as long as we remain prudent. We believe and trust our superintendent and his administration are guiding this district in the direction we need to be headed.”

But Hinckley and former Superintendent Eugene White both said it was clear to them that Ferebee had taken a different philosophical approach to the budget which could partly explain his wildly different view of IPS’s financial state.

White served as superintendent for nearly eight years until he was forced out by a new school board majority in January of 2013. When his buyout was finalized, Hinckley was brought in as his interim replacement in March of 2013. She quickly began raising alarms about the budget, suggesting up to 10 schools might need to be closed to assure the district remained financially viable. It was Hinckley who announced the $30 million figure.

Hinckley, who now works as a consultant to schools, served as a superintendent in Indiana for 28 years, the last 11 in Indianapolis’s Warren Township. When she examined the IPS budget in the spring of 2013, she said it was clear White’s primary focus had been on assuring the district always carried over a solid cash balance.

It was an odd approach, she said.

“Until I was there they had never reconciled revenue and expenditures or presented balanced budgets,” she said. “Dr. White was of the opinion that they had cash balances so they didn’t have to worry.”

White doesn’t disagree that his focus was on the cash balance bottom line and that some planned spending didn’t happen in order to save money.

“It was an expenditure budget,” he said. “You could control your expenses but you couldn’t control your revenues. It had been that way for a long time before I was there.”

When Ferebee says he found allocations — such as money set aside for a science and technology magnet school — that never came to fruition but remained in the budget, White said he knew that was sometimes the case.

“There were athletic teams appropriated for each school,” said White, who now serves as president of Indianapolis’s Martin University, as an example. “Even if they didn’t have a team, we still budgeted those amounts. You have to have some cushion for error.”

Ferebee released an accounting of the unspent dollars from 2013 that suggests the cushion was huge.

The figures showed $13 million in salaries and benefits set aside for employees who apparently were never hired. Another $8 million was set aside for consultants and other purchased services that were never contracted.

The idea of a large deficit, however, came from Hinckley only after White had left, he pointed out.

“All that came from her,” White said. “You never heard that from me.”

White said the cuts he was making each year were generally in the $2 million to $3 million range and helped IPS stay ahead when revenue dropped as fewer students enrolled and the state cut aid programs.

It’s possible, Hinckley said, that inflated budgets painted an exaggerated picture of the problem. But she maintains her cautions were and are valid. The cuts White was making, she said, were never big enough to cover the revenue losses. IPS would soon be devouring its cash balance without deep cuts.

If the $8.4 million cash surplus Ferebee found is real, it resulted from $10 million in cuts IPS made last spring, Hinckley argued.

“They’re losing money,” she said. “At some point, when that cash is gone, what is he going to do?”

Ferebee and board members said the district would next undertake a more detailed analysis of IPS’s finances. Ferebee said he would reach out to the Council of Great City Schools, an alliance of urban districts, to seek a “comprehensive” financial analysis.

Board member Gayle Cosby also said IPS also plans to create a budget development committee that includes students, teachers, administrators, parents and business leaders to review spending and income going forward.

Even so, board members said they continue to grapple with Ferebee’s revelations and understand their implications.

“You have to understand we are not a board of accountants,” board member Michael Brown said. “We accepted those (budgets) as factual and truthful.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.