Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told school board members Wednesday he has no plans to exercise new powers granted to the district last month by the Indiana legislature to make deals with charter school operators to run district schools next year.
Gov. Mike Pence signed House Bill 1321 last month. It gives IPS the authority to hand empty buildings over for charter schools to use, or to hire charter school operators to run an IPS school. Ferebee has said all along he was not exclusively interested in deals with charter schools.
He has also suggested IPS could forge deals with two teachers who created Project Restore, a successful school turnaround program, or other teachers with ideas for improving schools.
“I want to elevate our commitment to incubating and developing quality models that aren’t just charter models,” he said. “I want to take off the handcuffs and really give people a crack at innovation to turn around some of the schools. I want to make sure we open the doors to innovation and collaboration across the board.”
But Ferebee said he won’t be ready to cut any deals with any outside groups before the 2015-16 school year. He and the board need that time, he said, to formulate a districtwide plan for buildings, grade configurations and other logistical decisions.
Also on his agenda: getting the district’s teachers on board.
Unions objected to the bill, saying it created a uneven playing field for teachers when it comes to their bargaining rights. The bill permits the charter operators to hire teachers for the schools they run — even if they remain IPS schools — and disregard the district’s union contract when deciding what the pay and benefits will be.
The district is working on a memorandum of understanding regarding teachers’ concerns about the special partnerships that Ferebee hopes the union will sign, but union leaders said on Tuesday that they were not impressed by the early drafts. The union wants IPS teachers to be allowed to remain covered by their contract even if their school is run by an outside group, it wants assurances teachers in those schools can stay in the state teacher retirement system and they want to be able to negotiate face-to-face with Ferebee, and not with the district’s attorneys.
“If we’re not talking to him, there’s no sense in signing it,” said Ann Wilkins, the union’s former president who now aids the local union on behalf of the Indiana State Teachers Association.
Ferebee cited three troubled schools — School 51, School 69 and School 103 — he’d look to overhaul using his new powers. All three are among 11 F-rated schools Fererbee has placed on red alert for low test scores and lack of test score growth.
That was fine with board members, so long as the districts partners in improving the schools were internal or non-profit. Some board members argued for a prohibition against pairing up with for-profit charter school groups. But Ferebee and others argued against that.
“That’s immediately putting barriers on what we said we wanted to open up because we want something new,” board member Caitlin Hannon said. “I want to hear everything and then it’s up to us to decide.”
Ferebee said there are no active talks with charter schools or any outside group about managing an IPS school.