Is Arlington High School actually coming out of state takeover?

Indianapolis Public Schools cheered in December when state education policymakers unanimously voted to give control over Arlington High School back to the school district.

But suddenly it wasn’t clear at today’s Indiana State Board of Education meeting if, in fact, IPS would have the ultimate say over what happens to Arlington after all.

“Having ultimate governance authority over a school and administering a school are two separate things,” board member Dan Elsener said. “We didn’t say we’re no longer intervening at Arlington and we’re giving it back to IPS. We were careful there. We took responsibility. If we just say, ‘It’s over now, everything’s fine,’ I’m not too sure that’s realistic.”

Elsener stressed the school remains under state oversight even if IPS resumes operation of the school. December’s vote was to approve IPS to control day-to-day management at Arlington again, contingent on submitting a detailed plan for how it would look.

That came as a surprise to IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who thought he would be given full authority to transition  Arlington from Tindley Schools, a charter school network that has operated it since 2012 but said last summer it wanted out of its contract.

Now Ferebee said he’s not certain who is in charge of Arlington going forward.

“It’s a little confusing,” Ferebee said after the meeting. “What I heard today is … ‘We want our fingerprint on the work.’ That definitely changes our mindset in how we want to plan. We believe community ownership over the transition is going to prove to be the most successful transition. As it stands now, the school is under authority of the state board and we’ll comply with what’s been requested of us.”

Arlington was one of five schools that in 2012 became the first to be severed from school district control by the state board exercising the power of state takeover in Indiana law for the first time. But almost from the start the process has been fraught with confusion over which of three parties — the state board, school district and outside managers — is responsible for what aspects of the school.

Although the takeover operators were given four-year contracts, big changes have been forced on the process in just the third year. Besides Tindley’s early departure from Arlington, Charter Schools USA today pitched a completely different approach to managing Donnan Middle School, a former IPS school it manages. CSUSA wants to jointly manage a reimagined Donnan, expanding the middle school into a K-8 school.

But state officials didn’t seem quite ready to view Arlington and Donnan as something other than schools in state takeover.

“The crux of the challenge with this legislation (is) schools have been turned over to the State Board of Education for intervention, but there was never an exit plan created,” said Danielle Shockey, deputy state superintendent. “We are at this place where for the first time one could potentially exit. They don’t have the advantage of history or following any kind of protocol. It is evolving before our very eyes.”

The state does not want to be in the business of running schools, Elsener said. But he also wasn’t ready for the state board to give up oversight of Arlington. He proposed the state board wait and see if IPS creates a successful plan for the school.

“You get here by last chance hotel,” Elsener said. ” We want a clear plan from (IPS) of what consultants they’re going to use, what template they’re going to use, how they would operate within a transformation zone. If the district we send them back to is well- structured, well-managed, the goal would always be to get local control.”

Board member Gordon Hendry agreed that the state board doesn’t know exactly what it means to exit state takeover.

“That is a challenge,” Hendry said. “Even in the discussions of Charter Schools USA and IPS, there’s not clarity at this time as to whether it will go back to IPS, under what terms. That’s undefined right now.”

Ferebee, who fought to earn back more control of the district’s struggling schools from the state, said the time is now to develop a plan for how to end state takeover.

IPS’s partnership with CSUSA could be the model. Using a state law created last year that allows IPS to forge compacts with charter school companies, Ferebee said the two entities can share oversight for now. Then they can look ways to collaborate on other IPS schools CSUSA managers in state takeover — Howe and Manual high schools.

“We knew the takeover process wasn’t a forever intervention,” Ferebee said. “At some point there has to be strategy around how to transition those schools to the district. We see this as a means to do so. We see this as the beginning of what can be translated to a very smooth and effective transition, not only for Emma Donnan, but also for Manual and Howe.”

CSUSA’s CEO, John Hage, said he doesn’t care what they call the partnership at Donnan if the partnership with IPS improves the school.

“By the time we’re done, there could be 10 different ways to label this thing,” Hage said. “It’s an experiment that has chances for success and for failure.”