Two Indiana virtual schools face swift closure as they shrug off blame for enrollment scandal

The superintendent of a tiny Indiana school district that oversaw two scandal-plagued virtual charter schools read Thursday night from an eight-page script, recounting a series of missteps at Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy.

Those schools, which had been slated to close by the end of the 2019-2020 school year, had “let their students down,” Daleville Community Schools Superintendent Paul Garrison said at the sparsely attended meeting. “There are many things that led us to this place, but that has been the most disappointing failure of them all.”

That latest blunder — failing to tell students and families that the schools would be shutting their doors — will likely hasten the schools’ demise, the Daleville school board voted unanimously at Thursday’s meeting. The vote could leave some 2,500 students scrambling to get their transcripts and transfer to other schools. It marks the second time this year that the rural district outside Muncie moved to pull the schools’ charters.

Indiana Virtual School had been slated to close at the end of September, and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Now, Daleville could issue a final decision in a month that could close both schools at the end of September.

The online schools, which were subjects of a series of Chalkbeat stories highlighting their dismal academic performance and financial conflicts of interest, set off confusion this week when teachers told unsuspecting students that the schools had closed — though they remain open for now. That’s when students found out the schools were in trouble.

Indiana has cut off funding to the two virtual charter schools in light of state auditors’ findings that they overreported their enrollment and collected twice as much public money as they were supposed to in the last three years — about $40 million too much.

A newly retained attorney for Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, Mary Jane Lapointe, addressed Thursday’s meeting, saying she didn’t know why the schools hadn’t notified students. She blamed the company contracted to run the schools for the enrollment issues and said school officials “did not have anything to do with the operations of the schools or with enrollment. They’re blindsided by this too.”

The board denied Lapointe’s request to hold off on the revocation process. If Daleville ultimately revokes the schools’ contracts, she said, “the work stops,” which could leave students in the lurch.

Daleville school board member Ron Halbert Jr., asked why the superintendent of the virtual schools, Percy Clark, was not at Thursday’s meeting.

“Frankly, he was concerned he was going to be a target,” Lapointe said.

After the meeting, Halbert said, “If you’re willing to fight for your kids, you’re going to show up and make an appearance.”

A school counselor and a parent pleaded with the Daleville school board to keep the schools open for the sake of students. They feared that students could be at risk of dropping out, since some students chose the online options after struggling and falling behind in traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

Mismanagement at the virtual schools was “wrong,” but “it’s also wrong to punish the kids,” said an Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy parent, Angie Pogue. “You’re punishing these children that have nothing to do with what’s taking place.”

The president of the Daleville School Board, Diane Evans, countered that the district cares about the well-being of students, but given the circumstances, “sometimes, things can’t be helped.”

The virtual charter schools have 15 days to respond to the charter revocation. Daleville, which has chartered Indiana Virtual School since 2011 and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy since 2017, has at least a month to make its final decision about whether to revoke the charters.

Daleville officials indicated that if the charters are ultimately revoked, the schools will likely both shutter by Sept. 30. Although Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy are year-round schools, most Indiana schools are starting the school year this month and in the coming weeks.