a thousand cuts

After weathering Sandy, Grady HS loses funding in the shuffle

Grady High School students gathered in the classroom that has been used by Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit group that has provided support to the school. The end of a grant program means the services and partnership will end.

A month ago, administrators at William E. Grady Career and Technical High School had no reason to think the school’s after-school and enrichment offerings were at risk.

A year after getting the surprising news that the city would try to close the school, nine months after learning that the closure plan was off, and five months after reopening with a dramatically reduced student body and budget, the school was finally back on firm footing.

Administrators expected a new round of funding for extra services to kick in this fall. Since 2008, the school has offered after-school programs with the support of a state 21st Century Community Learning Center grant secured through a partnership with Good Shepherd Services, a youth and family development agency.

But last week, the school learned that in the next round of the grant, Good Shepherd wouldn’t be working with Grady, and the funding — at least $150,000 a year according to Good Shepherd — would no longer flow. The news came too late for the school to sign on to a different organization’s grant application.

Exactly why the news came as a surprise is not clear. Assistant Principal Jodi Infantolino said Good Shepherd’s on-site employees had told her they planned to stay on, and Principal Geraldine Maione said no one at the organization had communicated otherwise. But officials at Good Shepherd said they always knew they would not be able to work with as many schools in the grant’s next round — with the maximum funding reduced, the group would be able to apply for the grant in partnership with only six schools.

The bottom line is that after Jan. 14, Grady wasn’t part of Good Shepherd’s grant application, and it was too late for Maione to partner instead with the other two groups that had asked her to sign on with them.

Now, the school will have to figure out some other way to pay for the services — which administrators said had helped propel it from a D to a B two years ago — or go without them. It is the latest in a series of losses that began when the school’ federal school improvement funds vanished because of the city’s dispute with the teachers union; continued when enrollment dropped sharply; and compounded when Hurricane Sandy flooded the building last fall.

While Grady has faced a particularly tough series of blows, the episode highlights the challenge of using partnerships to pay for essential school services, something that schools have always done but that Chancellor Dennis Walcott recently urged them to do more often.

“What this is an example of is significant cuts to after-school funding, there not being enough money to go around, and organizations having to make really bad choices,” said Amy Cohen, who oversees government contracts and program development at Good Shepherd Services. “The process is very, very complex, and the rules changed in the middle. And as a result horrible things like this can happen as just an oversight of this miserable system. There’s not enough money and a very complex application process, so organizations and schools get hurt in the mix.”

Even if Grady had been included in Good Shepherd’s grant application, there’s no guarantee that the bid would have been approved.

Grady is just one of many schools across the city that rely on grants to supplement what the school can offer and help students complete enough credits to graduate. City funds for after-school programs are often the first to land on the chopping block when budget cuts are needed, and Mayor Bloomberg last month proposed cutting $10 million in city funding from an after-school initiative he created in 2005. Last year, a last-minute budget deal averted proposed cuts of an even greater magnitude.

“Once again, the mayor’s proposed cuts to after-school and early childhood programs will continue a disappointing trend of shrinking programs for the children in our city who need them most,” President and CEO of the Children’s Aid Society Richard Buery said in a statement last month after the mayor announced the preliminary budget for 2014.

With the grant funding that is still in place through the end of the school year, Good Shepherd Services staff a classroom at Grady where students can unwind, do homework, use computers, and participate in a wide range of classes. The agency also pays for four Grady teachers to teach for-credit classes after the regular school day. Infantolino said students started earning credits more quickly after Good Shepherd moved into the building.

The agency brought arts classes into the career and technical education school for the first time and organized trips to visit colleges in Boston and New York, as well as camping trips and museum visits for students Maione said “have never left their blocks in Brooklyn.”

“The staff has been amazing — young, energetic, and they relate to the kids,” Infantolino said.

“Good Shepherd staff are like parents and older brothers and sisters,” senior Orville Feanny said. “If you’re not in class, they’ll come around and find you…to me, Andre is like a dad. I go to him for whatever advice I need, school or personal.”

Feanny said his favorite class is martial arts, and that his heart is set on attending Northeastern University, which he said he had never heard of until Good Shepherd organized a trip there.

If it weren’t for Good Shepherd programming, Feanny said, “I’d probably just play basketball and handball every day after school when I didn’t have a sports team.”

On the school’s most recent quality report, Grady was rated well-developed, the highest rating, in school culture. “This grant was part and parcel of how we were able to do that,” Maione said.

Funding & Finance

Indianapolis Public Schools may ask taxpayers for more money. A three-year deficit and raises for teachers are driving the decision.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Indianapolis Public Schools leaders may ask the public for more funding.

With Indianapolis Public Schools slowly burning through its savings, district leaders may soon ask taxpayers for more money.

For the third year in a row, the district expects to operate at a deficit, following years of declines in state funding and growing spending on teacher pay. Now, to balance the budget, some district leaders say IPS may need to ask taxpayers for more money through a referendum.

It will be more than a year before the district can put a referendum to increase property taxes on the ballot, said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. But with state funding stagnant or declining, Ferebee said that he believes the district will “absolutely” need to have a referendum for more funding to pay teachers at the current rate and potentially increase pay in the future.

In recent years Indiana schools have become largely reliant on state funding for operating expenses, with local money primarily paying for transportation and facilities. But districts with pinched budgets often appeal directly to residents to increase property taxes and send more money to schools. Of the 11 school districts in Marion County, eight have asked taxpayers for more funding to pay operating expenses such as teacher salaries and six were successful. The most recent district to make an appeal was Washington Township, which passed a referendum last fall.

Next year, IPS expects to spend about $22 million more on operating expenses then it receives in state, local and federal dollars. The district can make up for that gap in the short-term because it has about $57 million in savings, and it is adding millions of dollars to its coffers each year from the sale of unused buildings. But neither strategy is sustainable in the long term.

“We know we have deficits,” said Weston Young, the district’s chief financial manager. “Ultimately, much like a lot of the other local districts and state districts, an operating referendum is very much a consideration for our district.”

Before district leaders appeal to voters for more cash, however, they are aiming to cut some of the costs that are weighing down the shrinking district — which has lost thousands of students over the last decade. The biggest drain are the district’s underused schools. The district has nearly three times as many seats as there are high school students to fill them, which dramatically pushes up costs at some schools.

(Read: Empty hallways, higher costs force Indianapolis Public Schools to consider closing high schools)

Last summer, IPS leaders announced plans to close some of the district’s high schools. Ferebee said last week that the district could close schools by 2018-2019.

Board member Kelly Bentley said that closing some high schools is one way that the district can show taxpayers that it is managing its finances responsibly — and win more support for a referendum.

“I think the district has been and continues to be really good stewards of the money that we have,” she said. “We need to continue to do that so that the taxpayers feel comfortable that we are doing what we can with what we have, and there really is no other alternative.”

IPS leaders are also looking to prove their fiscal responsibility in other ways: Since Ferebee took the helm three years ago, the district has touted a focus on making sure funding goes directly to schools. Last year, consultants for the district found that spending on management and leadership had fallen to $684 per student in 2015-2016 from $876 in 2012-2013.

But IPS leadership has also spent big on some areas. The district has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay outside consultants to help plan a new approach to school budgeting. And last fall, the district approved the first teacher raise in years, which increased the minimum salary for teachers to $40,000 — at a price tag of about $1.7 million per year, according to an IPS spokesperson.

If the district wants to raise teacher and principal salaries again, the district will need to have a referendum, Bentley said.

“With concentrated poverty like we have in IPS, I just think it’s a huge challenge for principals and teachers,” she said. “We just need to be able to pay them competitively. I just hope that the public will see that.”

help wanted

Memphis charter office seeks to double in size to keep up with growing sector

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Stacey Thompson, charter planning and authorizer for Shelby County Schools, confers with director of charter schools Charisse Sales and Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management.

Shelby County Schools is about to double the size of its staff overseeing charter schools.

About a year after a national consultant called the district’s oversight deficient, the school system is seeking to reorganize its team and hire more help.

With 45 charter schools, Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer but has only three people to watch over the sector — “lean for a portfolio of its size,” according to a report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA.

The charter office reviews applications for new schools, monitors quality of academic programs, ensures compliance with state and federal laws, and can recommend revocation for poor performance.

NACSA Vice President William Haft said the changes point to a school system that is becoming more sophisticated in collaborating with charter schools in order to improve innovation in the classroom.

Shelby County Schools “grew quickly as an authorizer,” he noted, and at a time when the district was also restructuring quickly due to the 2013 merger of city and county schools and subsequent exit of six municipalities.

“When you have just a handful of charter schools, naturally it’s just a small organization and you have an all-hands-on-deck mindset. … Everybody pitches in,” Haft said. “Now there’s an opportunity. And to their credit, the district is recognizing and … taking action to develop those structures that are now absolutely necessary.”

The new positions, which were advertised this month, would add more specificity to job responsibilities.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said the restructuring is to meet the needs of a growing number of charter school students, including thousands under the state-run Achievement School District who eventually will return to local governance.

“This is part of the strategic staffing plan …,” Leon said. “This team will be directly responsible for ensuring that children in our community have the opportunity to attain an excellent education and for moving forward the district’s priority around expanding high quality school options.”

The hires also are designed to boost the relationship between charters and the district, which have become increasingly strained over funding and processes. Last spring, confusion over the district’s charter policies came to a head with the revocation of four charters.

Shelby County Schools authorized its first three charter schools in 2003, one year after the state legislature passed a law allowing nonprofit operators to open schools in Tennessee. Though the sector has swelled to 45 schools, its oversight office has only grown from two to three staff members.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ education landscape, the district has sought to step up its oversight of them. Last year, Shelby County Schools issued its first-ever report on the state of charter schools in Memphis. A charter advisory committee also was created to find ways to improve oversight and collaboration in academics, financing and facilities.

Coming out of that committee is a voluntary authorizer fee. Many Memphis operators have said they are willing to pay the fee in exchange for better oversight and collaboration, including adding more staff to the charter office.

“(Charter leaders) look forward to continuing to work with them and others that the district looks to add to the office in order to continue the steps to becoming a high quality authorizer for SCS charter schools,” said Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for Tennessee Charter School Center and co-chairman of the charter advisory committee.