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.”

 

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below:

Student recruitment

How common is it for districts to share student contact info with charter schools? Here’s what we know.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Staff members of Green Dot Public Schools canvass a neighborhood near Kirby Middle School in the summer of 2016 before reopening the Memphis school as a charter.

As charter schools emerge alongside local school districts across the nation, student addresses have become a key turf war.

Charter schools have succeeded in filling their classes with and without access to student contact information. But their operators frequently argue that they have a right to such information, which they say is vital to their recruitment efforts and gives families equal access to different schools in their area.

Disputes are underway right now in at least two places: In Tennessee, school boards in Nashville and Memphis are defying a new state law that requires districts to hand over such information to charters that request it. A New York City parent recently filed a formal complaint accusing the city of sharing her information improperly with local charter schools.

How do other cities handle the issue? According to officials from a range of school districts, some share student information freely with charters while others guard it fiercely.

Some districts explicitly do not share student information with charter schools. This includes Detroit, where the schools chief is waging an open war with the charter sector for students; Washington, D.C., where the two school sectors coexist more peacefully; and Los Angeles.

Others have clear rules for student information sharing. Denver, for example, set parameters for what information the district will hand over to charter schools in a formal collaboration agreement — one that Memphis officials frequently cite as a model for one they are creating. Baltimore and Boston also share information, although Boston gives out only some of the personal details that district schools can access.

At least one city has carved out a compromise. In New York City, a third-party company provides mass mailings for charter schools, using contact information provided by the school district. Charter schools do not actually see that information and cannot use it for other purposes — although the provision hasn’t eliminated parent concerns about student privacy and fair recruitment practices there.

In Tennessee, the fight by the state’s two largest districts over the issue is nearing a boiling point. The state education department has already asked a judge to intervene in Nashville and is mulling whether to add the Memphis district to the court filing after the school board there voted to defy the state’s order to share information last month. Nashville’s court hearing is Nov. 28.

The conflict feels high-stakes to some. In Memphis, both local and state districts struggle with enrolling enough students. Most schools in the state-run Achievement School District have lost enrollment this year, and the local district, Shelby County Schools, saw a slight increase in enrollment this year after years of freefall.

Still, some charter leaders wonder why schools can’t get along without the information. One Memphis charter operator said his school fills its classes through word of mouth, Facebook ads, and signs in surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re fully enrolled just through that,” said the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the state and local districts. “It’s a non-argument for me.”

A spokeswoman for Green Dot Public Schools, the state-managed charter school whose request for student information started the legal fight in Memphis, said schools in the Achievement School District should receive student contact information because they are supposed to serve students within specific neighborhood boundaries.

“At the end of the day, parents should have the information they need to go to their neighborhood school,” said the spokeswoman, Cynara Lilly. “They deserve to know it’s open.”