Future of Schools

With another Butler lab school in the works, the north side is unofficially a magnet magnet

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschool students at School 55, which could become the second Butler lab school in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Public Schools may open a new magnet school on the north side, a move that would further cluster sought-after programs in one of the district’s most affluent areas.

The school board heard a proposal Tuesday to convert School 55, also called Eliza Blaker, to the second lab school in collaboration with Butler University. If the board approves the plan, current students would have the choice to remain at the school, but new children would be admitted by lottery.

It would mean that in the area north of 46th Street along the College Avenue corridor — which encompasses some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods as well as some lower income neighborhoods — every elementary school would be a magnet.

The district is making progress in a campaign to increase diversity in the most sought-after programs. But the decision to place another magnet school on the north side is likely to draw criticism from parents who would like to see them in other areas.

These schools are “concentrated,” said board member Kelly Bentley, who represents the area around School 55. “We are 80 square miles, and yet, those programs are all isolated in a less than 10 square mile area of our district.”

“We’ve got a big district out there, and there are areas that I think could really benefit from some of these programs,” she added.

Indianapolis Public Schools elementary campuses

If the IPS administration converts School 55 to magnet school, it will increase the cluster of magnet programs on north side of the district. Most elementary schools on the east, south and west sides of the district are traditional neighborhood schools. (The map shows traditional, magnet and innovation conversion schools. It does not include other schools in the innovation network.)


The district currently operates School 60, which is about 3 miles south of School 55, as a lab school in collaboration with Butler. The school is open to students from across the district, but families who live nearby and children with parents who work at Butler have an advantage in the magnet lottery. As a lab school, it’s also a place where Butler education students gain on-the-ground experience through classes and as teaching assistants.

That’s one reason why the proposal calls for locating the second magnet campus on the north side: There are other locations that might be a good fit, but students from Butler need to be able to get to and from the campus for classes, said school leader Ron Smith. “A Butler lab school does need to be near enough … to make it a viable option for coursework.”

The school uses the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy. Like Montessori schools, Reggio emphasizes hands on learning and allowing students to choose what they study. School 60 has some multigrade classrooms and some that are single grades as part of the experimental approach of a lab program, which aims to test out educational ideas. It is one of the most popular schools in the district and last year, 266 applicants were placed on the waitlist.

When the Butler lab program began at School 60 about five years ago, most of the prior students were forced to leave, and the school restarted by building up from the early grades.

The new magnet dramatically altered the makeup of the school. Before the lab program began, School 60 educated a heavily black, low-income population. Nearly 92 percent of students were black, and more than 85 percent were poor enough to receive subsidized lunch. Since becoming a magnet, the school’s enrollment has transformed: Last year, 62 percent of students were white and 28 percent were eligible for subsidized meals.

But Smith said the picture is beginning to look different this year. With the help of new district admissions policies aimed at diversifying magnet schools and outreach from current parents, who have hosted events and gone door-to-door to recruit families, Smith said, the school has enrolled substantially more children of color.

If the board approves the proposal, School 55 would likely see a less dramatic shift in demographics because all of the current students would be able to remain. The campus is only about half full, so it could absorb some new students without displacing any of the current children.

The new campus could help diversify the program, said Smith: “It’s our intention that every family currently at School 55 would choose to remain as a part of the lab school program.”

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that the only innovation schools that appear on the map are conversion schools.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.