Future of Schools

Tindley says it can't afford to keep running Arlington High School

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Marcus Robinson, CEO of Tindley Schools, (center) addresses the Indiana State Board of Education in 2014.

Tindley Schools, the charter school group that has run Arlington High School in Indianapolis for two years under a contract with the state, said today it wants out.

The leader of the nonprofit group that also operates a network of Indianapolis charter schools told the Indiana State Board of Education Tindley simply couldn’t afford to keep managing the school unless it received an additional $2.4 million in aid. Otherwise it would have to subsidize the cost of running the takeover school with money earmarked for the charter schools it runs.

Tindley CEO Marcus Robinson said he’s not willing to do that.

“We made a promise before we started,” he said. “Tindley is a small non-profit. It is not some big corporate conglomerate or an entity that can afford to take $1 million or a half million dollars to prop up an operation. Does the charter school need to carry the turnaround school? The answer to that is that cannot be.”

After the state board balked at Tindley’s request to add more money for Arlington, Robinson instead proposed a year-long transition to hand the school back to Indianapolis Public Schools.

If not, Robinson said, he would exercise an option to end Tindley’s contract within 60 days.

“There is no way I put my team in that building without some clarity about what happens after this year,” he said.

State board members, appearing caught off guard, ultimately decided to establish a task force with representatives of Tindley, IPS, Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, Gov. Mike Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation and the Indiana Department of Education to work on a “transition plan” for Arlington.

“You can’t hold the young people you committed to serve hostage,” a frustrated state board member Dan Elsener said during the debate.

Ritz asked that the committee meet and complete a plan in a short nine-day window by July 18.

Arlington is one of five Indiana schools — four in Indianapolis and one in Gary — that were taken over by the state after six straight years of F grades in 2011.

Since the takeover, all of the schools have remained among the worst performers on state tests and none has risen above an F. Arlington’s modest test score gains, however, were the biggest of the group.

But funding has been a problem from the start. Under former Superintendent Eugene White, IPS pledged to compete with the takeover schools by aggressively recruiting their students to other IPS schools. It worked. After the takeovers, a fraction of the enrollment remained at the schools.

Because state funding is heavily based on enrollment count, the takeover groups faced the danger of far less money to operate the schools than they anticipated. In fact, when the state board at Bennett’s urging funded the takeovers at the same amount as the prior year to start, IPS sued and won.

Robinson said federal school improvement grants were a way to fill the gap, describing the expectation that the takeover schools would continue receiving them as “an enticement from prior administration to get groups to take over these schools.”

But the grants are not guaranteed. A similar dynamic played out last summer, when Tindley said it would invoke the out clause in its contract if the state education department, which was late issuing grant notifications, did not award the school one of them.

After it won the grant, which is administered by the state through a competitive process, Tindley was satisfied.

This year, Tindley’s grant will be less than the $1.3 million it received lass year.

That and other factors mean “the operational overhead outstrips revenue generated by students assigned to the school,” the letter states.

Since then, Robinson said he had discussions with IPS about ways the two groups might work together that he was hopeful would lead to “creative solutions” that might relieve some of the financial pressure on Tindley.

Even so, Robinson was counting on relief in the form of extra money from the state in response to his letter. But board members said the only way to give Arlington more was to take money from other schools that would receive the grants. The state board doesn’t have the leeway to assign other funds to the school.

When the board voted down Tindley’s request, Robinson shifted tone immediately, saying instead he wanted transition the school back to IPS for the 2015-16 school year.

Board member Sarah O’Brien cautioned that she wasn’t sure returning the school to IPS was the best option, or that a decision to move in that direction should be made hastily. Other options for a school in state takeover that the board could choose include merging it with a higher scoring school, closing it or turning it into a charter school.

She and others also noted that IPS officials were not present and Tindley had no formal agreement with the district.

“My hesitation is we are being asked to vote for a partnership that may or may not exist,” she said.

The task force is charged with figuring that out.

The operator of three other former IPS schools in state takeover — Donnan middle school and Howe and Manual high schools — said there is no danger it would walk away from the schools.

“CSUSA remains fully committed to educating our students in Indianapolis and the actions and discussions at today’s State Board of Education meeting don’t change that,” the Florida-based company said in a statement.

In the money

Here’s how Colorado schools would spend an extra $100 million from the state

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Hannah Moore, 8, shows off her moves during practice for an after school talent show that is part of the Scholars Unlimited After School program at Ashley Elementary school on March 10, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. Scholars Unlimited is an after school and summer program funded by the 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant, which is threatened to be cut entirely under the White House's budget cuts. The 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant served almost 20,000 students in Colorado between 2015 and 2016 and 76 percent of students showed academic improvement. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Legislators on the Joint Budget Committee unanimously decided this week to set aside $100 million to “buy down” the budget stabilization factor.

This number – $822 million in 2017-18 – is the amount by which Colorado underfunds its schools when compared to the constitutional requirement that spending on education increase every year based on student count and inflation. It’s more commonly known as the negative factor, though lawmakers are trying to get away from that term.

For several years now, lawmakers have held the negative factor steady, but this year, as Colorado has more money to spend than it has had in a long time, Gov. John Hickenlooper wanted to make a dent in it and requested the $100 million reduction. To be clear, a $100 million reduction in the negative factor is $100 million more that the state would send to districts. Technically, this number will be finalized in a separate piece of legislation, the School Finance Bill, which is coming any day now.

But state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, wanted to give some reassurance to educators that the money will be there in the budget. 

“It would send a message to our K-12 community that we are not spending that money and have set it aside,” she said.

And educators have been clamoring to hear that message. The Colorado School Finance Project has been running a social media campaign for the $100 million buydown using the hashtags #k12needsco and #kidsmattertoo.

The non-profit asked school superintendents around the state to say what they would do with the extra money, which translates to an additional $114 on average for each enrolled student, compared to holding the budget stabilization factor steady. The answers are identified by region, but not by district.

Here’s a small sample of the responses:

You can read all of them here.

The Joint Budget Committee has set total program spending on education at $7.75 billion before the negative factor is applied, up from $7.45 billion this year, a 4 percent increase. Of total program spending, the state will pay $4.4 billion, with the rest coming from local property taxes. This doesn’t include voter-approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides.

That translates to average per-pupil spending of $7,959, compared to $7,662 this year. A budget stabilization factor of $722 million would yield an average per-pupil amount closer to $8,074. 

The smaller budget stabilization factor is significant beyond just one budget year because state law says that this number shouldn’t get larger from one year to the next. However, Colorado superintendents are also pushing for a tax increase and change to the distribution of school money. It will take more than an additional $100 million spread among 870,000 students to address all the needs they identify in their responses to the Colorado School Finance Project.

Hickenlooper had also requested an additional $200 million for the state education fund, with the intention that that money be used to offset costs to districts from proposed changes to the public pension system and expected reductions in property tax revenue in rural communities.

The Joint Budget Committee instead voted to set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with fixing the Public Employees Retirement Association’s unfunded liability – but in the general fund rather than the state education fund and not specifically to help schools, where retirement costs account for a big chunk of the personnel budget.

The committee also agreed to set aside $30 million to help small rural districts with low tax bases and was supportive of setting aside $10 million to address rural teacher shortages, though some of the details are still being worked out.

March for Our Lives

Memphis students say Saturday protest is not just about school shootings. It’s about all gun violence.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
A student at Columbine High School holds a sign during a protest of gun violence, on March 14, 2018 in Littleton, Colorado.

Students marching Saturday in Memphis against gun violence say they are not only protesting the shootings that killed 17 people last month at a Florida high school. They also are speaking out against shootings that happen daily in their own city.

Seventeen-year-old John Chatman says he fears school shootings, but he especially fears the common gun violence in his neighborhood of South Memphis. He has lost close friends to shootings.

“It can happen anywhere, anytime,” Chatman said. “I think [this march] is a great stand. We should protest against school shootings. But we have to talk about what kids like me are seeing in Memphis on the daily.”

Memphis had 200 homicides in 2017, down from 228 the previous year, the deadliest year recorded in the city in two decades.

Chatman is one of hundreds of Memphians expected to participate in this weekend’s March for Our Lives event as part of a nationwide protest sparked by the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The largest march will be in Washington, D.C., where up to a half million protesters are expected, but smaller demonstrations are planned in cities and towns across the nation. In Tennessee, other marches are slated for Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Clarksville, Cookeville, and Johnson City.

The Memphis march will start at 10 a.m. at Claiborne Temple, and Savanah Thompson will be there. One of more than a dozen student organizers, she worries that news about people getting shot has become commonplace.

“Being in Memphis, you get used to hearing about gun violence,” said Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School. “This affects the youth in our city. … We never want a school shooting to happen in Memphis or anywhere ever again.”

Alyssa Kieren, a student leader at Collierville High School, hopes the march fosters a sense of unity.

“We’re trying to stress that this isn’t a partisan issue,” Kieren said. “We have to acknowledge there is a problem and we have to come up with solutions. … The thing we’re upset about is that children are dying in our schools, and they’re dying in our city.”