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She’s no Tony Bennett or Glenda Ritz — Jennifer McCormick is charting her own course as Indiana’s schools chief

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

For years, Indiana’s state superintendents have made huge political waves while in office.

Tony Bennett was a major Republican proponent of choice-based education reform. Democrat Glenda Ritz led an administration filled with political clashes with then-Gov. Mike Pence, a staunch conservative.

But this could be changing with Indiana’s newest schools chief, Jennifer McCormick.

More than two months into her administration and more than halfway through the 2017 legislative session, educators and advocates are praising McCormick’s focus and remain optimistic about her tenure.

“The general perception is people are finding her and her staff are good to work with,” said Betsy Wiley, head of the Indiana Institute for Quality Education, a local school reform organization that made large donations to McCormick’s campaign. “I think she’s been working really hard on making sure people know that her door is open.”

As a Republican official taking office under a Republican governor, McCormick is better positioned politically to accomplish her goals. Her relationship with Gov. Eric Holcomb has appeared relatively tension-free so far. They’ve made joint announcements about state initiatives related to STEM education and workforce development, and McCormick has been on-board with his budget proposal.

McCormick said that so far, there has been lots of talking.

“We’re not always going to agree, but at least the conversations are happening,” she said. “We have our hands and eyes and voice in a lot of the education bills that we’re concerned about, so we’ve been right there at the table offering amendments” to legislators.

But mostly, McCormick has been quiet when it comes to public state policy debates.

“I think she’s learning the ropes, and rightly so,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said. “She and her team are working closely with the state board, so I consider it very good — No controversy of any kind.”

Yet McCormick’s approach doesn’t sit as well with Minority Leader Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. He said he’s worried she’s leaving too much power to top GOP lawmakers in charge of education and not taking enough initiative at the department of education.

“I’m not familiar with any of the work that she’s doing,” he said. “The work that is happening on education is happening in the House and Senate chambers … If it’s her aim to just be ‘go along, get along, whatever Rep. Behning says or Sen. Kruse says is A-OK,’ I don’t know that she’s going to have a major role to play.”

Bosma and Pelath’s difference in opinion reflects some of the debates occurring in the Indiana General Assembly this year about whether to make the state superintendent an appointed or elected position. Part of the conversation inevitably centers around how people view McCormick’s role and it’s purpose.

It’s not clear yet if McCormick will step forward with ideas of her own or be more of an administrator who solely implements the policies of lawmakers, which GOP leaders repeatedly. But she has supported Gov. Eric Holcomb’s plan to make the role an appointed one.

McCormick has testified once this year before the Indiana Senate. During that hearing last week, she expressed concerns about testing and teacher evaluation that routinely were dismissed when Ritz was in charge, such as advocating for “computer-adaptive” tests. She also told senators there should be more conversations about how test scores are tied into teacher evaluations and whether that provision should be removed.

McCormick isn’t — and never has been — in lockstep with other Republicans on education policy. That was clear during her campaign, when, despite having mostly school choice advocates and Republicans as donors, she disagreed with GOP policies and instead advocated for changes to the school funding formula and seriously evaluating the impact of state-funded vouchers for private school.

Wiley said that although McCormick hasn’t shown herself to be an aggressive supporter of all school choice policies, such as vouchers, Wiley still thinks her organization made a good investment in backing her.

“She knows she has at least four years in that role, and she intends to do and get stuff done,” Wiley said. “If she doesn’t get credit for it along the way, I just don’t think she cares.”

Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said he’s heard from school leaders that they’re seeing more timely responses to phone calls and emails with the department of education.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she’s appreciated the time McCormick has made to talk with ISTA members, and she has no reason to believe she’s not going to support public schools — she’s “cautiously optimistic.”

Despite accusations during her campaign that she’d be too much like her Republican predecessor, Bennett, McCormick has not aligned herself with one particular education philosophy or camp. David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, said that independence is admirable.

“She is clearly her own woman, and I think there were some expectations,” Harris said. “She has been pretty clear that she’s going to follow the agenda and approach that she thinks is best.”

Leadership

New principal hired for Denver’s storied Manual High School

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Denver's Manual High School

Manual High School, a storied school in northeast Denver that has struggled academically, finally will have a new principal: Joe Glover, who currently serves as an assistant principal at nearby East High.

Glover will start his new job on Jan. 1, according to a letter from district administrators to Manual students, families, and community members. Glover will take over for an interim principal who is leading the school this fall. The last permanent principal abruptly resigned in March.

This was the second time this year that Denver Public Schools had tried to hire a principal for Manual. Its first attempt ended when the top prospect turned down the job.

Glover was one of two finalists for the position. The other finalist, Douglas Clinkscales, has worked at Manual since 2007 and is currently the assistant principal and athletic director.

Manual serves about 300 students, nearly all of whom are black and Latino and come from low-income families. Though the school’s enrollment is small, its significance is big.

Manual is often held up as one of the most traumatic examples of the district’s strategy of closing low-performing schools and reopening them with a new program in hopes of better outcomes. Manual was closed in 2006 and reopened in 2007. While the school has seen some successes since then, its students have continued to struggle on state tests.

Read Glover’s resume below.

Super Search

Critics see Susana Cordova’s husband’s job as a conflict of interest. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova visits College View Elementary School in 2016.

Since Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova was named the sole finalist for the Denver school district’s top job last week, critics have zeroed in on one fact in particular: Cordova’s husband is a banker who does business with charter schools.

Charter schools are controversial. They are funded with public money but independently run by nonprofit boards of directors. In Colorado, the majority of charters are authorized by school districts — and Denver Public Schools has the most in the state: 60 of its 213 schools are charters.

Charter schools have played a key role in Denver’s approach to school improvement and have sometimes replaced low-performing district-run schools. Cordova worked in and supervised district-run schools during her time with Denver Public Schools, but community members who don’t like charters have raised concerns about her family connection to charter schools.

Cordova’s husband, Eric Duran, is an investment banker for a nationwide financial company called D.A. Davidson, which has an office in Denver. The company describes Duran as “one of the leading investment bankers in the charter school movement,” and says he’s done deals in Pennsylvania, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

The deals Duran has done include one in Denver with a charter school called Monarch Montessori, which serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade in the far northeast part of the city. In 2015, Monarch Montessori issued $8.8 million in bonds to pay for the construction of five new classrooms, space for a gymnasium and assemblies, and an expanded cafeteria.

An offering document on file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission notes that D.A. Davidson was paid an underwriter’s fee of $132,225 as part of the Monarch Montessori deal.

At the time, Cordova held the position of chief schools officer for Denver Public Schools and was responsible for overseeing 165 district-run schools. She did not oversee charter schools or play a role in approving charter schools.

If Cordova is hired as superintendent, D.A. Davidson has said it will not do any business with Denver Public Schools or with any charter schools in Denver during her tenure.

The Monarch Montessori deal was between D.A. Davidson and the charter school’s board of directors; the offering document was signed by one of the school’s founders, who also served as president of its board, and a special education teacher who was on the board.

Denver Public Schools was not involved in the deal. In a statement, the district said it “does not have any financial obligations with the bonds issued by charters,” and district leaders “do not influence the financing decisions by independent charter schools.”

But parents and community members who don’t like charter schools see Duran’s work as evidence that Cordova has personally profited from charter schools, which they argue is a conflict of interest and makes her unfit to be superintendent of the school system. They have raised the issue repeatedly on social media.

Duran’s job was also the subject of a submitted question at a forum Wednesday night related to Cordova’s selection as the sole finalist.

In response, Cordova emphasized that no Denver Public Schools employee — including herself — had anything to do with the 2015 Monarch Montessori deal or with two other deals that other D.A. Davidson bankers have done with Denver charter schools in the past 10 years.

She also said she’s proud of her husband, who grew up poor in Denver, sleeping on the floor of the 800-square-foot apartment he shared with his extended family. After graduating from North High School, she said he got a scholarship to college and went onto a career in finance.

“He’s spent the vast majority of his career working on things like affordable housing, public school finance, hospitals — things that I believe we all believe are important for our communities to be thriving,” said Cordova, who is also a graduate of Denver Public Schools and has worked for the district since 1989. “So I’m incredibly proud of the work he has done.”

Charter school bond deals are actually relatively rare in Denver. The only reason a charter school would issue a bond is if it wanted to build, expand, or repair its own building. But most charter schools in Denver don’t own their own buildings. That’s because the district has been more amenable than most in the entire country to sharing space in its existing buildings with charter schools for a fee, a practice known as co-location.

The Denver school board named Cordova the sole finalist for the superintendent job last week. The board — which governs the entire school district and is separate from charter school boards — is expected to vote Dec. 17 on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.