Who Is In Charge

Losing top principals presents a challenge for IPS

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Deciding to leave School 90 was tough for Mark Pugh, the principal who for the last seven years led a stunning turnaround that made the it one of the best-scoring high poverty schools in Indiana.

But he started looking for another job after receiving an odd reward for the success he’s had at the school: a deep pay cut.

The Indianapolis Public School board last summer ordered salary reductions — it cost Pugh $14,000 — for 11 elementary school principals. Less than a year later, School 90 will have to figure out how to keep its streak of success going without him.

“It’s bittersweet for me to be leaving,” he said. “It’s kind of like sending your kid off to college. I hope whoever comes in next will value the school as much as I valued it and value the staff as much as I valued them.”

With Pugh’s departure, Indianapolis Public Schools will now have to find new leadership for School 90, a school with better test scores than any other elementary school that draws students mostly from a high-poverty neighborhood. The school was too small to have an assistant principal and there is no obivious successor.

And at it’s best scoring middle school the story went much the same way.

Harshman Middle School, a math and science magnet, earlier this spring lost its principal and a vice principal that many expected would some day take over leading the school.

At a time when Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has begun creating a new hiring process with a goal of choosing strong principals, the departure of three well-regarded school leaders isn’t making his job any easier.

Pay freezes and tight budgets have been prompting top IPS employees at all levels to look elsewhere for several years.

“There is no question there is a problem with retaining all talent in the district,” board member Caitlin Hannon said.

But in Pugh’s case, the pay cut, a 15 percent reduction in his salary from $94,000 to $80,000, went well beyond the district’s widespread problem of not keeping up with inflation.

“The reduction in pay definitely prompted me to look at it a little more seriously,” he said.

When Pugh took over at School 90, its state rating was a D and a little over half the students passed ISTEP.

It now has been rated an A for five consecutive years, including twice being honored by the Indiana Department of Education for ranking among the state’s best schools for test score growth, the only school to make the list more than once in that period.

Also known as Ernie Pyle Elementary School, School 90 serves 360 students in K to 6. It was given a magnet theme two years ago but basically remains a neighborhood school, serving mostly children who live nearby on the Northwest side. It follows the Paideia curriculum, based on a Greek-inspired classical education, as its magnet program.

The student body is nearly all high poverty — 95 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. It has a huge number of students learning English as a second language at 28 percent. Special education enrollment also exceeds the districtwide average.

Those are tough challenges, but Pugh’s approach as principal focused on enforcing tough, consistent discipline and building an elite teaching team. The result: four straight years of ISTEP gains.

With 84 percent passing last year, School 90 trailed only the Sidener Gifted Academy and the Center for Inquiry at School 84, two of the district’s most sought after magnet schools, as the best scoring schools in IPS. The highest scoring non-magnet school serving a neighborhood last year was School 39, which was 20 points behind School 90 with a passing rate of 64 percent.

How did that track record earn Pugh a $14,000 pay cut? In part, the board’s decision was based on faulty information.

Believing IPS was facing a $30 million deficit, interim Superintendent Peggy Hinckley discovered an oddity in principal pay while searching for cost savings in the district’s budget. Most elementary school principals were on 10-month contracts. But Hinckley found 11 who were paid for 12 months.

Her research showed there had apparently been a mistake. Most of those who saw pay cuts had formerly worked in high schools on 12-month contracts that were mistakenly not adjusted when they changed jobs, Hinckley said at the time. While acknowledging it created an awkward and financially painful situation for those affected, Hinckley recommended adjusting Pugh and the others to 10 months, because it would help the district save money and standardize the work year for elementary school principals.

After Ferebee took over in September, IPS soon found its financial situation was much different than everyone thought.

In March Ferbee made a stunning announcement: the reported deficit didn’t exist, he said. IPS actually had a small surplus last year. The district had been systematically overestimating its expenses, Ferebee said.

That revelation has prompted widespread rethinking of pay issues.

Teachers, many of whom have not had a raise in five years, are clamoring for a pay hike as negotiations on a new contract begin in August with the district’s teachers union. The school board has also had discussions about taking the opportunity to completely rethink how teachers, principals and others are compensated. The board could start that process even before labor talks begin.

“We’ve never budgeted well and we haven’t budgeted our values,” Hannon said. “If we want to build a system where talent is the No. 1 thing we’re interested in, I think we are close to beginning that.”

One change Ferebee has already made was to boost pay for principals willing to take an assignment at one of 11 “priority” schools, or the most troubled buildings with flat or declining test scores. He said he hopes to restore the pay cuts that affected Pugh, but fixing priority schools came first.

“I’m really trying to turn the tide on things that occurred before I got here,” Ferebee said. “The way those reductions were made, we cannot just reverse all of those at one point in time.”

For Pugh, the pay cut put on the table for his family a long running idea of moving to Ohio, where they have relatives. Later this month, he expects to be named principal of a suburban elementary school there. He informed School 90 staff on Thursday that he would not be returning.

“I feel very privileged,” he said. “I have a great deal of pride in Ernie Pyle. I feel confident I’ve made an impact on kids’ lives.”

Will the next school leader be able to continue the momentum? That challenge is also facing Harshman.

As principal, Bob Guffin led a turnaround at Harshman with similar results as School 90 but on a quicker timetable. Harshman was rated an F in 2010 with just 33 percent of its students passing ISTEP. Two years later, it was rated a B after a 27-point jump in its passing rate.

Last year, with 73 percent passing ISTEP, it was the district’s top-scoring middle school by far, even when compared to middle school students who attend the district’s highly regarded magnet high schools, some of which serve grades 6 to 12. Broad Ripple High School’s middle school students ranked second on ISTEP but the school’s passing rate was more than 15 points behind at 56 percent.

Guffin left for another attractive job: he is now the executive director for the Indiana State Board of Education. Likewise, his assistant principal, Dana Altemeyer, took a job as communications coordinator for Lawrence Township schools.

A new principal selection process he’s begun to put in place will help assure all schools have good principals, Ferebee said. His approach includes school staff, parents and other stakeholders in the decision about who should lead a school.

At School 90, the top rate teachers Pugh assembled will help pick as its next leader the right person who can build on his success, Ferebee said.

“Those teachers are going to continue to do the work,” he said, “and help us select the right leader to be sure we don’t miss a beat.”

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.