Six hundred acres of mostly dormant farmland, ponds, and forest in southern Indiana hardly seem like they would be the centerpiece of the state’s newest virtual charter school. But when founder Allan Sutherlin looks out over the land, he sees that and more.

Sutherlin, a long-time political operative, says he wants to fundamentally change how Hoosier students learn about agriculture, starting with the perhaps counterintuitive idea of using a farm as the physical outpost of the online Indiana Agriculture and Technology School, set to open in July.

Sutherlin and his team are laying these ambitious plans at a time when virtual charter schools across the country are growing rapidly and facing criticism for failing to serve students. What’s unclear is whether the school can live up to its lofty promises, or end up serving as another illustration of how Indiana’s charter school law fails to adequately regulate virtual schools.

Already, Indiana Agriculture and Technology School has hurdles to overcome. Its founder and academic director have ties to other virtual charter schools with questionable track records. The school will be monitored by an inexperienced rural public school district, a model that charter school advocates worry won’t provide sufficient oversight and is allowed under what some see as a loophole in Indiana state law.

And the farm itself was purchased for the school by the school board’s treasurer, also a co-founder, who will eventually charge the school rent — a deal whose full details haven’t been made public. Meanwhile, school leaders say that it’s unclear when students will have access to the farm and that students won’t be required to visit the property, despite a promotional video promising “students will gain real hands-on knowledge and skills” at the “farm campus.”

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

Sutherlin and his colleagues say they intend to learn from mistakes made by other virtual schools, including ones they were connected to. They say they have faith in their first-time authorizer. And after inquiries from Chalkbeat, school officials said the school board member whose firm purchased the land will step down from the post.

Backers of the agriculture school portray it as an innovative way for students anywhere in the state to be trained for agriculture careers when Indiana’s economy desperately needs them.

Still, the unconventional circumstances surrounding the school’s opening underscore the lack of regulations in Indiana’s charter school sector, a Wild West where almost anyone can propose a new school and potentially gain access to state funding. The agriculture school will be the third virtual charter school to open in Indiana in the past year, bringing Indiana’s total to seven for next school year and mirroring fast growth in the sector nationwide.

Despite poor academic performance and financial problems at some of these schools — including four virtual charter schools the state gave F grades to in 2017 — Indiana lawmakers killed three separate attempts to strengthen laws surrounding the oversight of charter schools this year.

Even for supporters of charter school expansion, the planned opening of an online agriculture school serving kids in grades 7 through 12 raises questions, particularly at a time when the drawbacks of virtual education are becoming more widely known.

“It just strikes me as a little bit bizarre, having a full-time virtual agriculture school,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “The marrying of these two just doesn’t, at least on the surface, just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. … I’m concerned that new full-time virtual charter schools are opening up in Indiana, given the problems they have with the current batch of them.”

The Indiana Agriculture and Technology School is home to several different types of terrain, including wetlands and forest.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Indiana Agriculture and Technology School is home to several different types of terrain, including wetlands and forest.

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Sutherlin, the school’s founder, is known across Indiana for his influential state and national political career, but he describes a more humble beginning — he grew up in Fillmore, Indiana, on a farm, the son of two teachers. After spending his childhood learning about farming and agriculture from his father and grandfather and showing cattle and hogs at the state fair, he went to school to become a veterinarian, then veered into studying life sciences and microbiology instead. Ultimately deciding against a graduate degree, he landed a job with Gov. Robert Orr’s office as an environmental advisor in the 1980s.

In that position, he kickstarted what would become a decades-long career in politics, including roles advising Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. In the early 1980s, he also helped orchestrate controversial changes to Indiana’s political districts, which contributed to a wave of changes that set up the Republican Party to win a majority in Congress. Now, he’s a political consultant in Indiana. He ran a successful campaign for Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard and maintains other local clients.

Sutherlin told Chalkbeat that he’s been working on the idea for the school for years — specifically, how to get Indiana students to understand the role agriculture plays in the state and in their lives. He said at least five years ago he was beginning those conversations with a founding board member at Indiana Virtual School, which a 2017 Chalkbeat investigation revealed was bringing in more than $20 million of state funding despite its two consecutive F grades from the state and single-digit graduation rate. A spokesperson from Indiana Virtual didn’t respond to a request for comment but in the past has said the school enrolls many students who struggle in traditional schools and often come in below grade level.

Following Chalkbeat’s investigation and a call to action from Gov. Eric Holcomb, the Indiana State Board of Education formed a committee in May to look into virtual school rules and regulations. Holcomb and board members have said they are concerned about the schools’ performance. That committee is set to meet for the first time in early June.

Sutherlin also became involved with Indiana Virtual School about two years ago as a consultant, when he worked on an application to replicate it in Texas. He was included in communications from the school to Chalkbeat as recently as December. But he said in March that he is no longer working with Indiana Virtual and that a confidentiality agreement blocked him from sharing specifics about his consulting work. Indiana Virtual School did not respond to a request for comment about Sutherlin’s work there.

“I’m not working directly with Indiana Virtual School at this moment,” Sutherlin said. “They might give me a call and ask me a question, but I don’t have a direct relationship … I’m a businessman, and I don’t want to turn away clients if they need my help.”

While opening a virtual school wasn’t his initial plan, it was a way to advance Sutherlin’s dreams of expanding agriculture education in the state. The agriculture school, Sutherlin said, is a “completely different model” that is learning from the mistakes of other virtual charters.

Typically, full-time virtual schools put few restrictions on how and when students learn, opting for a wide-open schedule that some parents and students have told Chalkbeat is the reason they sought virtual learning in the first place. The agriculture school will require four to six hours a day of online class work, done as self-paced modules and not taught live. It will also split its 188-day school year into nine-week chunks, which the school hopes will make it easier for students to stay on-track. These limits can also ensure students don’t fall too far behind, school leaders said.

The school also plans to structure its staff more like a traditional high school’s than many virtual schools do, with lead teachers, subject-specific teachers, tutors, and other educators who act as social workers and counselors — all certified in Indiana. The school is shooting for a teacher-to-student ratio of about 1 to 75, which is much lower than Indiana Virtual School, which had one teacher for every 222 students at the end of the 2016-17 school year. But it’s still far higher than traditional schools and reports from Indiana online charter schools run by K12 Inc. and Connections, two large national online education providers.

Students will have face-to-face time with teachers during some video study sessions, and teachers will grade their work, track progress, and periodically travel to students’ homes, school staff says. The school also plans to take live attendance every day. Indiana has no set requirements for measuring attendance — some schools, such as Indiana Virtual School, have counted students present if they enroll, resulting in 100 percent attendance rates over the past few years. Others, such as Indiana Connections Academy, pull their rates from how often students actually log on to do work — more in line with how the agriculture school says it will operate.

These elements were designed in part by Keith Marsh, the school’s academic director. Marsh said he didn’t expect to return to virtual charters after another school where he held the same role was shuttered amid academic and financial trouble. Indiana Cyber Charter School was shut down in 2015 by its authorizer, Education One, following a significant drop in test scores and financial management issues, including vendors not getting paid, according to a spokeswoman for Education One.

“That’s when I said I’m pretty much done with virtual until this opportunity came along,” said Marsh, who spent much of his early career as an administrator in private and township schools across the state.

But when Marsh heard about the school through a different consulting project, he said he saw an opportunity to try again to get online learning right for Indiana students. “I really want our school to kind of be a model for … how virtual education should work,” Marsh said.

Keith Marsh, academic director at Indiana Agriculture and Technology School, explains aspects of the farm's hands-on learning plans.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Keith Marsh, academic director at Indiana Agriculture and Technology School, explains plans for the farm’s hands-on learning.

The vision for the school also excited Timothy Edsell, the superintendent of  Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson school district, when Sutherlin approached him about a year ago. Sutherlin needed an “authorizer,” or a state-endorsed entity that would sign off on the plans and monitor the school’s performance and operations over time.

Sutherlin said the 1,868-student district was a good fit because it is part of a rural, agriculture-focused community the school hopes to appeal to. Although the district has never supervised a charter school, Edsell said, it sought — and quickly received — approval from the Indiana State Board of Education to become an authorizer last year.

That a small district would supervise a statewide virtual school is not unprecedented. The troubled Indiana Virtual School, where Sutherlin was a consultant, is also overseen by a small rural district, Daleville Public Schools.

“It’s uncharted territory for us because obviously we’ve never done something like this before,” Edsell said of the decision to authorize the agriculture school. “From the monitoring aspect, one of our biggest concerns is to make sure there is success.”

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But the rural district has waded into a murky part of Indiana charter school law that has — perhaps inadvertently — given it the power to oversee statewide schools.

In a 2015 law, lawmakers clarified numerous specifics surrounding charter school authorizing. The law spelled out that local districts like Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson can only authorize charter schools within their boundaries, while colleges and the Indiana Charter School Board could be statewide authorizers. It also kept a provision from 2011 that says virtual schools are to be overseen by statewide authorizers.

But there are still parts that lack clarity — the law didn’t explicitly allow or prohibit local districts from overseeing statewide virtual schools, even though doing so would mean they could potentially take responsibility for thousands of students far outside their physical boundaries.

“That’s a big loophole in Indiana law, unfortunately,” said Ziebarth, with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson is “probably meeting the letter of the law,” said Rep. Bob Behning, the 2015 law’s author, but the wider issue is “something we’re going to have to look at.”

Some critics question whether a local district has the resources to act as a statewide authorizer and oversee a school with students across Indiana. It’s not uncommon for districts to have only one person, or sometimes a part-time person, doing the main authorizing work in addition to their district jobs.

“Most places you have district capacity issues to oversee any charter school, let alone a statewide charter school,” said Karega Rausch, vice president of research and evaluation for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Authorizers in Indiana do stand to benefit financially from the schools they oversee. Edsell said the district planned to collect 3 percent of the school’s state funding in oversight fees. If the school opens with its planned 550 students, that could be more than $70,000. So far, only about 80 students have committed to the school, Marsh said.

Sutherlin said he decided to approach Edsell about authorizing, rather than a more experienced statewide authorizer like Ball State University or the Indiana Charter School Board, because he liked the “grassroots” approach.

“We worked very hard to get firm financial footing in place to alleviate any concerns that they might have,” Sutherlin said. “We did everything we could to show that we were serious about this.”

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One area where authorizers play an important role is vetting contracts, leases and other land deals, such as the purchase of the agriculture school’s farm campus. The sale of the property has taken place outside of public view and illustrates how Indiana law could be clearer when it comes to charter school board members and conflicts of interest.

The farmland, made up of 16 parcels, was in danger of foreclosure and was up for auction in September of 2016, according to the Morgan County Assessor’s Office. But before the auction took place, the land was deeded from Kevin Presnell, the previous owner, to Network Venture Funding, a private investment firm where current agriculture school board treasurer John Curtis is a managing partner, county officials and a school spokeswoman said.

Curtis purchased the property as an investment before Sutherlin approached him about using it as a physical campus for students, according to the school spokeswoman who spoke on Curtis’ behalf. School officials told Chalkbeat that Curtis said his company paid about $2.6 million for the land. The school would not send Chalkbeat documents reflecting the purchase price or explaining how it was determined. Presnell could not be reached for comment.

There is no lease yet between Network Venture Funding and the school, but in an email, Curtis said he would ask the firm’s board to approve a $1 rental agreement for the upcoming school year. School officials said that when the school opens later this summer and the board finds a replacement, Curtis will step down as a board member and treasurer.

“This then will eliminate any potential for conflicts,” Curtis said in an email.

Curtis said neither he nor Sutherlin have been paid for any of their work on the school so far and that the school has been able to use the farm rent-free over the past year as it prepares to open. After next year, he said, the school’s board will have to decide what it can afford as far as rent.

Indiana law says that neither board members or prospective board members for traditional schools may have a financial interest in schools they serve, but it’s not clear if those rules apply to charter schools.

Sutherlin said he plans to keep funds provided by the state for students separate from private dollars raised to build and develop the farm. Going forward, though, having private entities involved could make it harder to get a full financial picture of the school.

An experienced authorizer, Ziebarth said, would be able to review property arrangements and raise red flags if necessary.

“It’s not in the best interest of the public to basically authorize a school for something that involves a real estate boon for somebody,” Ziebarth said. “There’s the potential for conflicts of interest for sure.”

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As of now, there is no firm plan for when academic facilities might be built on the farmland nor is there a set schedule for when students can visit the farm. Officials said the trips won’t be mandatory. But Marsh said he thinks visits will begin in September, and the school plans to transport the students from their homes, which could be scattered across the state.

The farm is in southern Indiana only a few miles from the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson district office in Morgan County.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The farm is in southern Indiana only a few miles from the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson district office.

Now, Marsh and school officials are traveling across Indiana to recruit. After seeing a Facebook ad for the school, Charlo Montandon thought it would be the perfect fit for her grandson, an animated 15-year-old who has a passion for agriculture.

Solomon Montandon said he was excited to find a school where he felt like he belonged. Like other students drawn to virtual charter schools, he didn’t thrive in traditional schools. His grandmother said Solomon has dealt with emotional and anxiety issues stemming from his time in foster care, and he has also been picked on at school for being small.

“He loves farms and he loves farming,” she said. “He’s shown llamas … for four or five years for 4-H and he’s shown goats a couple times. It sounded just like him.”

Indiana Agriculture and Technology School says it can address some of the pitfalls that have plagued online charter schools across the country, though it will be more than a year before scores can show how much students are learning.

Last year, 34 states had 429 full-time online charter schools that enrolled 295,518 students, an increase of 17,000 students from 2015-16, according to a recent report from the National Education Policy Center. In Indiana, the schools enroll about 12,000 students, about 1 percent of all students. But of the five virtual charter schools that were graded by Indiana in 2017, four received Fs, according to the state, and experts wonder if expansion is happening too quickly.

“We saw 6 percent growth in the number of students in virtual schools (across the country),” said Gary Miron, a virtual school researcher at the National Education Policy Center. “It defies common sense.”

Virtual school critics have said it’s not just on schools to improve themselves — the state has work to do. Indiana lawmakers, who have the most power to act and can do so relatively quickly, have so far been loathe to make any changes when it comes to virtual charter schools, despite years of well-documented shortcomings in Indiana and the nation as a whole.

Holcomb has called on the Indiana State Board of Education to study the schools further and consider policy changes, but even he said he doesn’t think the legislature needs to get involved. And lawmakers themselves point to a need for more data on the population of students who attend virtual schools before they feel comfortable stepping in.

At the very least, lawmakers should close the district authorizing loophole, Ziebarth said.

“The governor came out and said he wanted these changes, and everyone else seemed to flinch from it,” he said. “This seems like a piece of low-hanging fruit for them to take on.”

Check out more of Chalkbeat’s online school stories.