Who Is In Charge

Indiana Supreme Court says schools can cut busing

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When her district faced an $18 million loss in tax dollars in 2011-12, Franklin Township Superintendent Flora Reichanadter had to make a difficult decision: Eliminate funding for the district’s busing or cut teachers and classroom resources?

She went with the former, which prompted a lawsuit and three-year debate about whether Indiana students have a constitutional right to ride a bus to school.

Today the Indiana Supreme Court gave its answer: The state constitution does not require school districts to offer busing. That could clear the way for other cash-strapped schools to tell kids to find their own rides to school.

Franklin Township actually reinstated busing in 2012, but Reichanadter said the court’s ruling justified the hard decision she said she made to keep teachers while parking the district’s buses.

“It’s really just an affirmation that what we did at the time was the best we could do with the finances we had at the time,” Reichanadter said.

Jeff Butts, superintendent in Wayne Township and treasurer for the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said the Supreme Court’s ruling, which overturned a lower court decision, gives other districts across the state a lot to think about when money gets tight.

“It’s a big win for the school district,” Butts said. “We are happy for them. We know that it created controversy in their community and it created some strife, but I’m happy for Franklin Township, and I think this is something that every school district is now going to have to take a look at.”

In the midst of the 2011 budget squeeze, Reichanadter said Franklin’s school board was adamant that it would not cut teaching jobs or academic programs.

“Rather than take the money out of the general fund, which is paid for at the state level, we chose at that time to eliminate transportation,” Reichanadter said. “If we wouldn’t have eliminated transportation, we would have had to eliminate staff, and at the time our board did not want to impact the classroom.”

The district shortfall had two causes, she said: caps on property taxes passed by the legislature in 2010, which cost the district about $18 million per year, and a failed referendum. Voters did not approve a request to increase their property taxes to give the district more money.

The tax caps were put into place as an effort to make property taxes, which sometimes shifted up or down unexpectedly for homeowners when their home values changed, more stable. Most school district spending today comes from state sales and income tax and is doled out by the legislature. Schools can use property taxes to pay down debt for school buildings, support building maintenance and fund busing.

Tax caps effectively stabilized tax bills for homeowners and businesses, but put some school districts that were paying down debt in a tough spot.

Reichanadter said Franklin Township was hit especially hard by the tax caps, as 94 percent of the township’s property taxes come from homeowners, who are taxed at a lower rate than businesses and farmers. School districts with more businesses and fewer residences generally raise more property tax money.

As budgets became tight, hard decisions had to be made, she said.

“It became really, for us, about survival,” Reichanadter said. “It was necessary. We literally did not have the funds.”

But some parents were furious. Schools became mired in traffic jams of parents dropping kids off. When the district cut a deal for an outside bus company to offer rides to school that parents had to pay for, a group of them filed a lawsuit.

The suit demanded reimbursement for families who were driving their own children to school and refunds of the busing fee the company charged for families that used that service. The Supreme Court’s ruling said that parents could not get a refund because schools are not constitutionally required to provide busing. It also said schools can’t charge a a separate fee for bus service.

By 2012 the district was able to refinance some of its debt, lowering its interest payments. That freed up money it used to restore bus service after just one year without it. Although the district is busing kids now, it might not always be able to do so, Reichanadter said, because of changes to how the state is funding schools and because the tax caps don’t seem to be going anywhere.

Under the budget proposed by the Indiana House, Franklin Township gets just $16 more per student, or about $137,000 per year, she said.

“This decision just barely scratches at the surface of funding public education because we still continue to struggle with the tax caps,” Reichanadter said.  “That’s not going to help my transportation fund that runs on $4 million to $5 million.”

Butts said Wayne Township is facing a funding shortfall, too. If it can’t close its $8 million gap with a referendum to voters this spring, reducing bus service could be on the table. Wayne currently offers free busing to all its students, as many schools aren’t in neighborhoods with sidewalks or safe walking zones. But that $8.8 million transportation budget, or part of it, could also be useful elsewhere, Butts said.

“If you don’t have safe walking routes to and from school, then you also create a safety issue for your children,” Butts said. “But the reality is you have to find a way to fund all the different pieces, and when you have a reduced revenue stream, you also have to find a way to make sure you are providing all the services that are essential to the classroom.”

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
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.