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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.”

Show me the money

Colorado Senate Republicans push charter school funding in annual school spending bill

Students at University Prep, a Denver Public Schools charter school, worked on classwork last winter. (Photo by Marc Piscoty)

An ongoing dispute over charter school funding in Colorado stole the spotlight Thursday as the Senate Education Committee deliberated a routine bill that divides state money among public schools.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, backed by his GOP colleagues, amended this year’s school finance legislation to include language that would require school districts to share revenue from locally-approved tax increases with charter schools.

The annual school finance bill takes how much money the state’s budget dedicates to education and sets an average amount per student. That money is then bundled for each of the state’s 178 school districts and state-authorized charter schools based on student enrollment and other factors.

Thursday’s charter school funding amendment is a carbon copy of Senate Bill 61, one of the most controversial education bills this session. The Senate previously approved the bill with bipartisan support. But House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, has not assigned the bill to a committee yet.

“I do want to continue to pressure and keep the narrative up,” Hill said as he introduced amendment.

Democrats on the committee, who also vigorously opposed the charter school bill, objected.

“I consider it a hijacking move,” said Colorado Springs state Sen. Mike Merrifield.

A bipartisan group of senators last year attempted a similar tactic. While requiring that charters get a cut of local tax increase revenue did not go through, smaller items on the charter school community’s wish list were incorporated into the overall funding bill.

House Democrats this year will likely strip away the language when they debate the bill.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, was not immediately available for comment. She’s the House sponsor of this year’s school finance bill. Pettersen voted to kill similar charter school funding legislation last year at the sponsors’ request. But this year she has been working on a compromise that Republicans have said they’re open to discussing.

Senate Republicans on Thursday also approved an amendment that would prevent the state’s education funding shortfall from growing this year.

The amendment takes $9.6 million from a school health professionals grant program, $16.3 million from an affordable housing program and about $22.8 million from the state education fund and gives it to schools.

Democrats on the Senate committee opposed the changes. They said the money, especially for school health professionals was important.

“Counseling, health programs, are all essentials,” said state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat. “It’s not icing on the cake.”

The governor’s office also is likely to push back on that amendment. The governor’s office lobbied heavily during the budget debate for the $16.3 million for affordable housing.

Hill said that he tried to identify sources of revenue that were increases to current programs or new programs so that no department would face cuts.

No one will be fired with these changes, he said.

“I want to send a message that we’ll do everything in our power to prioritize school funding and not increase the negative factor,” he said referring to the state’s school funding shortfall.

Hill’s amendment means schools will receive an additional $57 per student, according to a legislative analyst.

While Thursday’s hearing was a crucial step in finalizing funding for schools, the conversation is far from over. Some observers don’t expect resolution until the last days of the session.

The state’s budget is not yet complete, although budget writers took a critical final step as the education committee was meeting. The death of a transportation bill died would allow lawmakers to some money away from schools and spend it on roads, but that is unlikely. Negotiations on a compromise on a bill to save rural hospitals, which also includes money for roads and schools, are ongoing.

And late Thursday, the state budget committee approved a technical change to the budget that could free up even more money for schools after learning cuts to personal property taxes that help pay for schools were not as severe.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Rep. Brittany Pettersen voted against a bill to equalize charter school funding. She has not voted on the bill yet. She voted against a similar measure last year. 

taking initiative

Parents, students press Aurora school district to pass resolution assuring safety of immigrant students

A reading lesson this spring at an Aurora family resource center. (Kathryn Scott, The Denver Post).

As a mother of four U.S.-born schoolchildren, but being in the country illegally herself, Arely worries that immigration agents might pick her up while she is taking her kids to school one day.

But what worries her more is that her children could be picking up on her fears — and that it might hurt their focus in school. She’s also concerned for those immigrant students who could be at risk for deportation.

“There are a lot of us who are looking for the security or reassurance from the district — most of all, that our children will be safe,” said Arely, who spoke on the condition that her full name not be used because of her immigration status.

Dozens of Aurora students and parents, including Arely, are pressing the school board of Aurora Public Schools to adopt a proposed resolution for “safe and inclusive” schools that they say would help. While the Denver school board adopted a similar resolution in February, their peers in Aurora have yet to act.

“Knowing that Aurora doesn’t yet have a resolution makes me feel insecure,” Arely said.

A district spokesman said in an email the resolution won’t be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, on Tuesday, but that it would be “part of the Board’s open dialogue.”

“Anytime the Board is contemplating a community request, the Board first openly discusses their interest in a public forum,” spokesman Corey Christiansen said. “If there is interest, the Board would decide to move forward at a future meeting to issue a statement.”

Two board members reached for comment Wednesday — Dan Jorgensen and Monica Colbert — both said they supported the resolution.

“I believe that not only do we have a legal obligation to serve all students, more importantly, we have a moral obligation to make sure that all of our students are in safe and inclusive environments,” Jorgensen said. “This resolution is about doing the right thing, including providing a public statement of support and directing reasonable action on behalf of all children in our schools.”

Colbert said not supporting the resolution would deny the strength of the district’s diversity.

“In a district like Aurora where our biggest strength is our diversity, for us not to adopt a resolution such as this would be not well serving of our students,” Colbert said.

The document presented by parents and students would direct the school district to ensure officials are not collecting information about the legal status of students or their families, that they keep schools safe for students and families, and that a memo the district sent to school leaders in February gets translated and made available to all families and all staff.

The memo outlines the procedures Aurora school leaders should follow if interacting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at a school.

The resolution also calls for district officials to write a plan within 90 days for how to react if an immigration enforcement action prevents a parent from picking up a student from school.

The parents and students started sharing concerns at end of last year after President Trump’s election stoked fears in immigrant communities.

Working with RISE, a nonprofit that works with low-income parents to give them a voice in education issues, the parents and students researched other school district resolutions and worked on drafting their own.

“We didn’t want any words that seemed as if they were demanding,” Arely said. “We just want equality for our children.”

Anjali Ehujel, a 17-year-old senior at Aurora Central High School, said she has seen her friends suffering and worried a lot recently. The most important part of the resolution for her was making sure her fellow students were no longer so distracted.

“This is important because we all need education and we all have rights to get education,” Ehujel said.

Another student, Mu Cheet Cheet, a 14-year-old freshman at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, said she got involved because she saw other students at her school bullied and depressed as they were teased about the possibility of being deported.

“For refugees they would just watch because they didn’t know how to help,” Cheet said. “When I came here, I also wanted to feel safe.”

Cheet, who came to the country as a refugee from Thailand seven years ago, found that working on the resolution was one way she could help.

More than 82 percent of the Aurora district’s 41,000 students are students of color. The city and district are one of the most diverse in the state.

“We really hope APS approves this resolution given it’s the most diverse district in the state,” said Veronica Palmer, the executive director of RISE Colorado.

Here is the draft resolution:

FINAL Resolution to Keep APS Safe and Inclusive 4 21 17 (Text)