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Indiana hasn’t really improved the schools it has taken over. Now, the state could start taking over entire districts

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students work on math assignments at Manual High School. The school was taken over by the state in 2012.

An effort to solve debt crises in Gary and Muncie could end with Indiana lawmakers having the power to take over school districts, even if they aren’t failing.

A bill would create a brand-new district takeover process that mimics a strategy Michigan recently abandoned in Detroit — one that could largely cut state education officials out of the picture. Lawmakers are still working out a final version of the bill.

Takeover is just one of many strategies the state has as its disposal to help schools improve. But so far, the state has only taken over individual schools when they have years of low test scores and letter grades — and it doesn’t have a strong track record of turning them around. Of the four schools that were taken over by the state in 2012 and still remain under state control, all received F grades in 2016.

Lawmakers came up with the strategy to solve long-standing financial troubles in Gary Community Schools, which has racked up $100 million in debt and dwindled to fewer than 6,000 students. The district has also been labeled an F since 2011, with seven schools considered failing.

But over the past few weeks, Senate Bill 567 has been adjusted by House lawmakers to add the Muncie school district to the mix —  which, despite having about $18 million of debt of its own, currently has a C grade from the state and no failing schools within its boundaries.

The prospect of having the state run schools that are doing an effective job on their own academically has caused one of the bill’s original authors, Democratic Sen. Eddie Melton of Merrilville, to reconsider the legislation he proposed.

“I do understand that academics and finances go hand in hand; however, I just caution the state on going down the lane of taking over entire schools corporations for academic purposes,” Melton, a former state school board member, said during a committee hearing Monday. “I know for a fact that the state has not been able to turn around, effectively, all of the schools we’ve taken over.”

It’s unusual for states to step in to run districts that are serving students effectively, according to Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a think tank at the University of Washington that researches how districts and charter schools can work together.

“The financial takeovers are not uncommon,” Lake said. “Usually, when you see a district in financial distress, it’s also in academic distress. So it’s pretty rare you’d get a state taking over for financial reasons and not facing an academic problem as well.”

The legislation on the table explains what would happen to districts under takeover, but not what would cause the process to begin in the first place.

If the bill passes as it currently stands, Gary and Muncie would each be designated as a “distressed political subdivision” and move under the auspices of an emergency manager, fiscal management board, and chief academic officer. The bill would let the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board, which typically handles labor disputes, or the state treasurer trigger the takeover process, whether the district requests help or not.

The bill — which targets two districts but is written in a way that appears to leave the door open for others to follow the same process in the future — contains no specific provision for including the Indiana State Board of Education, which has handled school takeovers started because of academic shortcomings. Instead, the district superintendent would work alongside the emergency manager, and the manager would have to consult with the state education department when hiring the chief academic officer.

But the law spells out that the manager “has full responsibility and authority related to financial and academic matters” of the district, regardless of whether the administration or local school board approves.

That level of responsibility could be a tall order for a state that has already struggled to make academic improvements in the schools it has taken over.

“Often, the problem is that the state doesn’t have much more capacity than the district had,” Lake said.

As an alternative, she pointed instead to states such as Massachusetts that, like Indiana, have moved in the direction of allowing districts to come forward with their own plan for change and letting them retain oversight when it comes to academic problems.

Local lawmakers are pointing out other problems with the bill. Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, near Muncie, implored the committee to remove that district from the bill, arguing that the district is already acting to close schools and make cuts that could right its financial situation.

And Rep. Melanie Wright, a Democrat from Yorktown, worried that the timing of the bill is too fast — and that it could set an unclear precedent for school districts in the future.

“How would a takeover look different than what it is now?” Wright said. “We’re acting very swiftly … those tough decisions are already being made. What’s the trigger point in the future?”

That’s a good question, Lake said. A number of states have provisions for state takeover of districts, but she said they also typically have a clear outline of what might cause a district to be taken over and how it would work.

“As a general rule in any kind of state intervention, transparency and predictability are all really important,” Lake said. “People should know under what conditions the state will step in and generally what the process will be.”

Sen. Luke Kenley, a Noblesville Republican who helped propose the bill, said he envisions taking a case-by-case approach to struggling districts. In fact, he suggested, districts beyond Gary and Muncie shouldn’t necessarily worry.

“I think you may have to look at the individual corporation to decide how you can best help,” Kenley said. “I may put in the bill that this is not a precedent, and each school corporation will be dealt with on their own merits.”

'a bit stuck'

Impasse declared in Denver teacher contract negotiations, prompting criticism from union

PHOTO: Marissa Page
Teachers watch a bargaining session between Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union on June 22.

For the first time in recent history, Denver Public Schools has declared an impasse in ongoing negotiations with the teachers union over a contract governing teacher pay, workload and more.

The declaration means the two sides, which have been bargaining since January, will continue negotiations but with the aid of a mediator. In the past, DPS and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association have mutually agreed to mediation without one side having to call an impasse to trigger it, said DPS deputy general counsel and lead negotiator Michelle Berge.

But this year, the union refused. DCTA wanted to keep negotiations as public as possible and avoid private meetings with mediators, said DCTA deputy executive director Corey Kern.

In 2014, Colorado voters approved a change to state law that requires contract negotiations between school districts and employee groups to be open to the public. The Denver teachers union has been taking advantage of the public sessions, inviting teachers to attend and talk to negotiators about their experiences and how various proposals would affect them.

Union leaders see the impasse as a way to silence that voice. Their belief stems in part from the fact that the district wants to use a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which helps resolve collective bargaining disputes free of charge.

Although the bargaining sessions would still be public, the mediator could meet with each side separately in private to help them craft proposals, a spokesman for the service said.

That’s not true public bargaining, Kern said.

He said it’s been DCTA’s experience that “the two parties spend most of the time in two rooms apart and the mediator is shuttling back and forth between those two rooms and talking about issues without the public present.” The two sides’ proposals would be shared publicly, but the public would miss out on hearing the thought processes behind them, Kern said.

Even though the district had requested several times to move to mutually agreed-upon mediation, Kern said DCTA was “blindsided” by the impasse declaration, especially since it occurred a day after a bargaining session that the union felt was productive.

Berge said the district decided to call an impasse because “a number of challenging issues remain where we’re a bit stuck.” Those issues include how much teachers should be paid, the benefits they receive and how they should be evaluated.

The hope, Berge said, is that a mediator will help the two sides find common ground. The mediator DPS wants to use is someone whom the district and union have worked with before.

“Those of us who are involved, we are deep in on this,” Berge said. “Sometimes we’re emotional. It’s tough stuff. A mediator is an independent person who can step above that.”

The current teachers contract expires Aug. 31. The two sides are scheduled to meet again July 24 at McKinley-Thatcher Elementary School in Denver. There are two bargaining sessions set for late July and five scheduled for early and mid-August.

getting to know you

These 10 Colorado lawmakers are rethinking how the state pays for its public schools

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
State Sen. Rachel Zezninger, an Arvada Democrat, on the first day of the legislative session.

Ten Colorado lawmakers, many with longstanding ties to the education community, are set to begin debating the future of Colorado’s school finance system.

The legislative group tasked with studying and making recommendations about how the state pays for public education includes former teachers and superintendents, a former State Board of Education member and a practicing charter school lawyer.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, will lead the committee during its first year.

Garnett helped establish the committee earlier this year when he co-sponsored House Bill 1340 with state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. Lundeen also will serve on the panel.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, will be the vice-chair.

The committee was formed against a backdrop of fear that the state’s schools would face deep budget cuts next school year. However, lawmakers at the last minute averted putting the state’s schools in an even deeper financial hole.

Still, lawmakers from both parties and members of the state’s education community agree the funding system is outdated and in need of a massive overhaul. The state last made significant changes to the system in 1994.

The committee’s first meeting is scheduled for July 24. Among its first decisions will be selecting a third-party consultant to help with research and guide discussions and decisions.

Here’s the full committee:

  • State Rep. Alec Garnett, Denver Democrat, chair
  • State Sen. Owen Hill, Colorado Springs Republican, vice chair
  • State Sen. Janet Buckner, Aurora Democrat
  • State Sen. Bob Gardner, Colorado Springs Republican
  • State Rep. Millie Hamner, Frisco Democrat
  • State Rep. Timothy Leonard, TK Republican
  • State Rep. Paul Lundeen, Monument Republican
  • State Sen. Michael Merrifield, Colorado Springs Democrat
  • State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, Sterling Republican
  • State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, Arvada Democrat