IPS school board breaks its own rules to partner with a charter school network

The Indianapolis Public School Board tonight broke its own policy against partnering with for-profit companies when it voted to work with Charter Schools USA at Emma Donnan Middle School, one of three struggling IPS schools the Florida company runs in state takeover.

But it said that working with CSUSA to create a new elementary school at Donnan was a “one-time exception” to the policy. The goal, board members said, was to avoid future state interventions at more IPS schools.

The deal to create a unique school independently operated by the company but overseen by IPS comes after months of tenuous negotiations between the district, CSUSA and the State Board of Education.

In 2012, Donnan was one of three IPS schools severed from IPS control and handed over to outside organizations to be managed independently.

The school board approved the new Donnan partnership 6-1. Several board members said they had doubts about the plan due to continued low test scores at Donnan since CSUSA took over, but ultimately Gayle Cosby was the lone vote against the deal.

“It seems pretty clear that because of the state takeover, there’s an opportunity there for these schools to be back in the fold of IPS,” said board member Caitlin Hannon. “If (we) were not in this situation … it would probably not be my choice, but I’ll be supporting it in an effort to bring the schools back.”

Cosby said she hasn’t been impressed by CSUSA’s work at the state takeover schools. Manual High School, which earned a D this year from the state is the only CSUSA-run school in Indianapolis that did better than an F.

“I think most of us can agree there are benefits to this and there are drawbacks to this,” Cosby said.

CSUSA has argued Donnan will do better by enrolling students sooner than seventh grade. IPS can exit the contract after the second year if CSUSA fails to reduce the percentage of students who don’t pass the ISTEP by 10 percent each year or raise Donnan’s A-to-F grade to at least one grade until it reaches at least a C or surpasses the district’s average ISTEP passing rate.

The board tonight also approved 6-1 a contract with Phalen Leadership Academy to independently manage IPS’s lowest-scoring school. Its a first-of-its-kind school made possible by a special law passed by the legislature last year allowing the district to create an “innovation network” of schools run under contract.

Cosby also voted against the deal with Phalen, saying it cost IPS too much.

“I’m hoping that … we don’t end up creating another disparate system in our district, where we have innovation network schools that have considerably greater (resources),” Cosby said.

Board member Sam Odle said the potential payoff of a better school was worth any risk.

“The worst thing we could do,” Odle said, “is leave these children in the same situation for another school year.”