Who Is In Charge

Challenging Ritz, McCormick cites politics and management problems

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Jennifer McCormick introduced herself and her run for state superintendent today by criticizing Glenda Ritz’s management of the Indiana Department of Education and calling for a debate that gets beyond politics.

“We need to strive for excellence,” she said. “We need to quit focusing on political squabbling. If we do that, success will come. It is time to put students before politics. It is time (for) excellence and achievement to be a forethought versus an afterthought.”

McCormick, the superintendent of Yorktown schools in Delaware County, is running as a Republican challenger to Ritz. She said she has not always voted Republican, arguing she viewed the work of superintendent as needing a shift away from political debates.

“The politics have got to be left out of it,” she said. “It’s time to move forward. It’s time to communicate and collaborate and play nice.”

Ritz has been locked in a three-year battle with Gov. Mike Pence and his appointees on the Indiana State Board of Education over the direction of education policy in the state.

Ritz’s campaign spokeswoman, Annie Mansfield, cited Ritz’s accomplishments in her statement responding to McCormick’s announcement.

“We welcome her to the race and look forward to talking about Superintendent Ritz’s record of improving over 100 public schools in her first year, resulting in over 61,000 students no longer attending schools that got a D or an F from the state, as well as fighting to hold students, schools, teachers and communities harmless as we transitioned to newer standards,” she said.

McCormick, however, said she ran in part out of frustration with the poor level of service she and other superintendents have received from the education department under Ritz.

She said, for example, that ISTEP guidance districts normally receive well in advance of the test date said only arrived in December for a test that is given starting in February.

“The last few years have been very difficult,” she said. “Ask your local districts. Indiana was at one point a leader in the nation. Today we are not. Today we have a Department of Education that is disorganized and disconnected from schools.”

McCormick, 46, argued she was a more experienced educator and leader, having worked as a special education teacher, a middle school English teacher, an elementary school principal and a superintendent.

“I know what it takes to be a leader in education,” she said. “I have done it and I will continue to do it. That sets me apart from our current superintendent.”

Married to a high school science teacher in her district, she also has a son who is a high school senior in Yorktown.

Her campaign would be upbeat and positive, McCormick said.

“We preach no bullying to the students and I will practice that,” she said. “I will not run a negative campaign.”

Even so, McCormick announced her run at the Statehouse surrounded by representatives of interest groups that supported Ritz’s predecessor, Tony Bennett, or have been critical of Ritz: Stand For Children, the Institute for Quality Education and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

There were also several former staff members from Bennett’s education department team on hand. McCormick did not mention Bennett, but Bennett cited her work in Yorktown in his final “state of education” address, given just months before he was defeated by Ritz in the 2012 election.

“Yorktown Schools, led by Superintendent Jennifer McCormick and a host of ambitious principals and teachers, have revamped their entire K-12 model based on providing every student a head start on college with a rich selection of Advanced Placement courses,” Bennett said in that speech. “In grade 3, Yorktown students begin an advanced curriculum designed to prepare them for college-level coursework as early as middle school. Yorktown has become one of Indiana’s AP leaders, and their model for college preparation has become an example for forward thinking districts around the state.”

Yorktown schools are good performers. The district ranks high in the state for test scores and graduation rates . It is rated an A by the state. The district has fairly low poverty, with only about a third of students who come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. To qualify, a family of four cannot exceed $44,863 in annual income.

But the district does have financial problems. It is one of a handful around the state that has been handicapped by tax caps.

In 2010, the Indiana legislature sought to make property taxes, which sometimes shifted up or down unexpectedly for homeowners when their home values changed, more steady.

Tax caps were the result: homeowners could not pay more than one percent of the total assessed value of their property in property taxes. While this stabilized tax bills, it made funding for some school services that still are paid by property taxes, such as transportation, less stable. When a district hit the maximum amount it can collect in property taxes, money can run short as expenses still grow.

That happened to Yorktown, necessitating cutbacks. One of them was the district librarian.

“The gal retired so we used those funds for some more reading specialists,” she said. “We outsource our librarian services. We keep a pulse on it. We keep an eye on how many books have been checked out and the atmosphere and the climate of the library. It’s worked for us.”

Before she was elected state superintendent, Ritz was working as a school librarian in Washington Township. Ritz is also a National Board certified teacher.

Jennifer McCormick on the issues

Here’s what McCormick had to say on key issues:

Teacher training. “We need to enhance our professional development. We need to increase the quality of candidates coming into education. We also need to retain those very qualified teachers that are in the classroom.”

Unions. “I’ve always had a good relationship with our unions. I had been a member of union when I taught. I am not anti-union. I am pro-teacher.”

Overhauling ISTEP. “When I talk about a team effort, you can’t make a decision on assessment unilaterally. It has to be a team effort. Once we hit that point there has to be a lot of people at the table having those discussions. I’m not saying ISTEP is a bad thing, I’m saying it’s not the answer.”

Ritz’s proposal to judge students on shorter tests given throughout the school year. “I think if you ask most educators there is power in both. You have to have summative assessments. You have to have formative assessments. The two have different purposes, but they both serve a purpose.”

Common Core standards. “We were one of those districts that jumped on it early and we lived through those changes in the standards, but the standards are set. The standards are the standards. They’ve been adopted, they’ve been accepted. There is a lot of money that has gone into that. From my standpoint, Indiana has really solid standards. We need to stick with them for a while so we can have some stability.”

School funding. “I don’t think any educator is ever going to be pleased with anything at this point, honestly. As your district changes, the funding changes. We have been hit with circuit breakers, as have a lot of school districts in Indiana. I know its very complex, but we will deal with the resources we’re dealt.”

meet the candidates

These candidates are running for Detroit school board. Watch them introduce themselves.

Nine candidates are vying for two seats on Detroit's school board in November. Seven submitted photos.

One candidate tells of a childhood in a house without heat.

Another describes the two-hour commute he made to high school every day to build a future that would one day enable him to give back to Detroit.

A third says her work as a student activist inspired her to run for school board as a recent high school grad.

These candidates are among nine people vying for two seats up for grabs on Detroit’s seven-member school board on Nov. 6. That includes one incumbent and many graduates of the district.

Chalkbeat is partnering with Citizen Detroit to present a school board candidate forum Thursday, Sept. 20 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at IBEW Local 58, 1358 Abbott St., Detroit.

Participants will have the opportunity to meet each candidate and ask questions in a speed-dating format.

In anticipation of that event, Citizen Detroit invited each of the candidates to make a short video introducing themselves to voters. Seven candidates made videos.

Watch them here:

School safety

Report lists litany of failings over police in Chicago schools

PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Police officers stand alongside Lake Shore Drive in August as protesters decry violence and lack of investment in African-American neighborhoods and schools

The Chicago Police Department doesn’t adequately screen and train the officers it assigns to Chicago Public Schools, and their roles in schools are poorly defined, according to a sharply critical report released today by the Office of Inspector General Joseph Ferguson.

The report lists a litany of failings, including basic administration: There is no current agreement between the police department and the district governing the deployment of school resource officers, or SROs, and neither the schools nor the police even have a current list of the officers working in schools this year.

The inspector general’s report also mentions several sets of SRO resources and best practices created and endorsed by the federal government, then notes that Chicago hasn’t adopted any of them. “CPD’s current lack of guidance and structure for SROs amplifies community concerns and underscores the high probability that students are unnecessarily becoming involved in the criminal justice system, despite the availability of alternate solutions,” says the report.

Chalkbeat reported in August about incidents in which SROs used batons and tasers on students while intervening in routine disciplinary matters.

Scrutiny of SROs is nothing new, and is part of the broader CPD consent decree brokered this week between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. That agreement calls for better training and vetting of SROs, as well as a clearer delineation of their roles on campuses—including a prohibition against participating in routine school discipline — beginning with the 2019-20 school year.

Read more: How the police consent decree could impact Chicago schools

But the report from Ferguson’s office says that the consent decree doesn’t go far enough. It chastises police for not pledging to include the community in the creation of its agreement with the school district, nor in the establishment of hiring guidelines; and for not creating a plan for evaluating SROs’ performance, among other recommendations. In addition, the report criticizes the police department for delaying the reforms until the 2019-20 school year. A draft of the inspector general’s report was given to the police department in early August in hopes that some of the issues could be resolved in time for the school year that began last week. The police department asked for an extension for its reply.