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.”

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.