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Indiana hasn’t really improved the schools it has taken over. Now, the state could start taking over entire districts

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Manual High School was taken over by the state in 2012. IPS is proposing closing the school if it is returned to the district.

An effort to solve debt crises in Gary and Muncie could end with Indiana lawmakers having the power to take over school districts, even if they aren’t failing.

A bill would create a brand-new district takeover process that mimics a strategy Michigan recently abandoned in Detroit — one that could largely cut state education officials out of the picture. Lawmakers are still working out a final version of the bill.

Takeover is just one of many strategies the state has as its disposal to help schools improve. But so far, the state has only taken over individual schools when they have years of low test scores and letter grades — and it doesn’t have a strong track record of turning them around. Of the four schools that were taken over by the state in 2012 and still remain under state control, all received F grades in 2016.

Lawmakers came up with the strategy to solve long-standing financial troubles in Gary Community Schools, which has racked up $100 million in debt and dwindled to fewer than 6,000 students. The district has also been labeled an F since 2011, with seven schools considered failing.

But over the past few weeks, Senate Bill 567 has been adjusted by House lawmakers to add the Muncie school district to the mix —  which, despite having about $18 million of debt of its own, currently has a C grade from the state and no failing schools within its boundaries.

The prospect of having the state run schools that are doing an effective job on their own academically has caused one of the bill’s original authors, Democratic Sen. Eddie Melton of Merrilville, to reconsider the legislation he proposed.

“I do understand that academics and finances go hand in hand; however, I just caution the state on going down the lane of taking over entire schools corporations for academic purposes,” Melton, a former state school board member, said during a committee hearing Monday. “I know for a fact that the state has not been able to turn around, effectively, all of the schools we’ve taken over.”

It’s unusual for states to step in to run districts that are serving students effectively, according to Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a think tank at the University of Washington that researches how districts and charter schools can work together.

“The financial takeovers are not uncommon,” Lake said. “Usually, when you see a district in financial distress, it’s also in academic distress. So it’s pretty rare you’d get a state taking over for financial reasons and not facing an academic problem as well.”

The legislation on the table explains what would happen to districts under takeover, but not what would cause the process to begin in the first place.

If the bill passes as it currently stands, Gary and Muncie would each be designated as a “distressed political subdivision” and move under the auspices of an emergency manager, fiscal management board, and chief academic officer. The bill would let the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board, which typically handles labor disputes, or the state treasurer trigger the takeover process, whether the district requests help or not.

The bill — which targets two districts but is written in a way that appears to leave the door open for others to follow the same process in the future — contains no specific provision for including the Indiana State Board of Education, which has handled school takeovers started because of academic shortcomings. Instead, the district superintendent would work alongside the emergency manager, and the manager would have to consult with the state education department when hiring the chief academic officer.

But the law spells out that the manager “has full responsibility and authority related to financial and academic matters” of the district, regardless of whether the administration or local school board approves.

That level of responsibility could be a tall order for a state that has already struggled to make academic improvements in the schools it has taken over.

“Often, the problem is that the state doesn’t have much more capacity than the district had,” Lake said.

As an alternative, she pointed instead to states such as Massachusetts that, like Indiana, have moved in the direction of allowing districts to come forward with their own plan for change and letting them retain oversight when it comes to academic problems.

Local lawmakers are pointing out other problems with the bill. Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, near Muncie, implored the committee to remove that district from the bill, arguing that the district is already acting to close schools and make cuts that could right its financial situation.

And Rep. Melanie Wright, a Democrat from Yorktown, worried that the timing of the bill is too fast — and that it could set an unclear precedent for school districts in the future.

“How would a takeover look different than what it is now?” Wright said. “We’re acting very swiftly … those tough decisions are already being made. What’s the trigger point in the future?”

That’s a good question, Lake said. A number of states have provisions for state takeover of districts, but she said they also typically have a clear outline of what might cause a district to be taken over and how it would work.

“As a general rule in any kind of state intervention, transparency and predictability are all really important,” Lake said. “People should know under what conditions the state will step in and generally what the process will be.”

Sen. Luke Kenley, a Noblesville Republican who helped propose the bill, said he envisions taking a case-by-case approach to struggling districts. In fact, he suggested, districts beyond Gary and Muncie shouldn’t necessarily worry.

“I think you may have to look at the individual corporation to decide how you can best help,” Kenley said. “I may put in the bill that this is not a precedent, and each school corporation will be dealt with on their own merits.”

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.

share your story

Teachers: How does your district handle family leave? How did it affect your life?

PHOTO: Logan Zabel

New York City is in the news because a petition there is calling for the city to create paid family leave for teachers, who currently must use accrued sick days if they have a child and are limited to six paid weeks off.

Chalkbeat wants to know: How do other districts and schools compare? What implications do these policies have for educators and their families?

If you have an experience to share, or can simply explain how this works where you work, please tell us here. Your answers will help guide our reporting.