Who Is In Charge

Did the Indiana State Board of Education break the law?

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Daarel and Elizabeth chat with guests during the Meet and Greet on May 22.

Remember back in October when state Superintendent Glenda Ritz sued her 10 fellow members of the Indiana State Board of Education?

A judge tossed out Ritz’s suit the following month, saying she didn’t have the authority to bring a lawsuit against the rest of the board. But the central issue — Ritz’s argument that the state board broke the law by holding a secret meeting without telling her or the public — isn’t settled.

Last week, a different judge heard testimony in a different lawsuit making the same charge: that email conversations held by state board members in October, and a resulting letter from the board to legislative leaders, constituted an official meeting that was held in violation of state laws requiring that public boards make decisions in public meetings.

“Official actions must be taken openly rather than in secret,” argued attorney William R. Groth, representing the plaintiffs in Eiler et. al. vs. State Board of Education in a mostly empty courtroom. “The people should be kept fully informed of the affairs of their government. The government is a servant of the people and not the other way around.”

The letter from all board members except Ritz asked to have the Legislative Service Agency calculate A to F grades for schools. Board members felt Ritz was dragging her feet on releasing the grades. But Ritz countered that the release was delayed because of online testing glitches and other problems. The grades were finally released in December, more than a month later than in the prior year.

This lawsuit, filed on Dec. 4 just days after Ritz’s own legal effort failed, includes Ed Eiler as one of four plaintiffs. How the suit came to be filed isn’t completely clear. Eiler, a Purdue professor and former school superintendent in Lafayette, said last year he was recruited to join the suit. Groth said he didn’t recruit anyone. Other plaintiffs include Merrillville schools Superintendent Anthony Lux; Catherine Fuentes-Rohwer, who chairs a Bloomington-based public school advocacy group; and Fort Wayne resident Julie Hollingsworth.

The state board is again trying to get the suit dismissed, arguing that communication over email did not qualify as a meeting, assistant Attorney General David Arthur told Judge Cynthia Ayers at the hearing.

“When there is no meeting, there is No Open Door law application,” Arthur said in court.

The Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s office had no further comment on the case.

“We await a ruling from the court,” said spokesman Bryan Corbin. “As this is pending litigation, it would not be appropriate for this office to comment further.”

Groth said the case is important because it could clarify the rules should questions about email decisions come up with other public boards.

“If one public official can send an email to another public official and conduct public business and take final action, the public will never know beforehand,” Groth said. “The main goal is to make sure that the state officials comply with the legal obligations under the Open Door Law and conduct public business in the open, not behind closed doors or in cyberspace.”

Stephen Key, president of the Hoosier State Press Association, believes the case could address a weakness in state law.

“This is may be a case where technology is ahead of the statute,” Key said. “It is a legitimate concern because now you have a situation where decisions can be made by email and the public doesn’t see the back and forth debate going on. It’s a problem area.”

The suit is no longer about state board politics, Groth said, or the ongoing disagreements between Ritz and the rest of the board.

“We’re not getting into the weeds of all the conflicts and policy disputes between the state board and Ritz,” Groth said. “But it did strike me that there was an important issue here. It’s going to set back the cause for transparency in government. That ought to be a matter of concern to all citizens.”

What are the suit’s chances?

The long lag in getting to last week’s hearing — six months — isn’t encouraging for the plaintiffs, Groth acknowledged. Nor is the fact that the court granted the state’s request for a stay of discovery, meaning that Groth can’t conduct depositions, interviews or ask for other information pertaining to the case.

But the Groth, Eiler and the others say they will fight on.

“Hopefully things will start moving faster,” Groth said. “If the court does dismiss the case, I’m confident we’ll take an appeal.”


Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below:

Mergers and acquisitions

In a city where many charter schools operate alone, one charter network expands

Kindergarteners at Detroit's University Prep Academy charter school on the first day of school in 2017.

One of Detroit’s largest charter school networks is about to get even bigger.

The nonprofit organization that runs the seven-school University Prep network plans to take control of another two charter schools this summer — the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies elementary and the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies middle/high school.

The move would bring the organization’s student enrollment from 3,250 to nearly 4,500. It would also make the group, Detroit 90/90, the largest non-profit charter network in the city next year — a distinction that stands out in a city when most charter schools are either freestanding schools or part of two- or three-school networks.

Combined with the fact that the city’s 90 charter schools are overseen by a dozen different charter school authorizers, Detroit’s relative dearth of larger networks means that many different people run a school sector that makes up roughly half of Detroit’s schools. That makes it difficult for schools to collaborate on things like student transportation and special education.

Some charter advocates have suggested that if the city’s charter schools were more coordinated, they could better offer those services and others that large traditional school districts are more equipped to offer — and that many students need.

The decision to add the Henry Ford schools to the Detroit 90/90 network is intended to “create financial and operational efficiencies,” said Mark Ornstein, CEO of UPrep Schools, and Deborah Parizek, executive director of the Henry Ford Learning Institute.

Those efficiencies could come in the areas of data management, human resources, or accounting — all of which Detroit 90/90 says on its website that it can help charter schools manage.

Ornstein and Parizek emphasized that students and their families are unlikely to experience changes when the merger takes effect on July 1. For example, the Henry Ford schools would remain in their current home at the A. Alfred Taubman Center in New Center and maintain their arts focus.  

“Any changes made to staff, schedule, courses, activities and the like will be the same type a family might experience year-to-year with any school,” they said in a statement.