School Finance

Here’s what led to Indiana’s heated debate about sending federal dollars to struggling schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana education officials are cautiously moving forward with a plan to send millions of extra dollars to the state’s most struggling schools next year — but how much, and to which schools, caused a contentious debate.

The Indiana State Board of Education is planning to direct more than $6.1 million in federal school improvement funds to schools where the state has intervened because of poor academic performance. Called turnaround academies, they include schools in state takeover as well as those with state-approved partnerships with charter school operators and other intensive supports. The funding, though, is a 6 percent decrease — or nearly $400,000 less — than what was allocated last year.

There are still questions about whether the plan, created by state board staff members, will pass muster under a new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, which classifies schools eligible for school improvement funding differently than Indiana has in the past.

Until federal officials sign-off on the funding plan, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, the Indiana Department of Education, which is tasked with handling federal Title I funding, won’t be doling out the extra funds to struggling schools just yet.

“That’s the big unknown right now,” said McCormick, the lone state board member who voted against the plan. “We will submit everything to the feds. As far as the recommendations that came out, until I have it in writing from the feds, we’re on pause … You don’t want the department of education at the state level to willy-nilly distribute federal funds.”

The board’s decision to follow its staff’s recommendations regarding the funding, rather than the education department’s, followed heated arguments between state board staff members and department officials. The two groups couldn’t agree on how much funding the turnaround schools should get — or if some of the schools were eligible to get any extra money at all.

The department said that under the federal ESSA law, schools can only receive the turnaround funds if they are in the lowest 5 percent of all Title I schools, receive an F letter grade from the state or a have a graduation rate of 67 percent or less. Indiana, though, considered Title I schools with F grades and any schools under state intervention to be eligible. It isn’t clear if the federal education department will allow three schools that meet Indiana’s threshold but not ESSA’s to continue receiving the funds.

“I think there are legal questions to still be answered,” said Nathan Williamson, director of Title grants and support for the state.

Also complicating matters, the state received less money from the federal government to give out for school improvement efforts overall — $17.4 million instead of $18.5 million. Plus, more schools are likely to qualify for those grants this year, primarily due to the new way the federal government is requiring the state to classify low-performing schools coupled with a dip in graduation rate. The state will have a final number in October, but department officials said it was probably going to be about 100 more schools, in addition to around 200 last year.

Because of the funding crunch, education department officials wanted to reduce the money sent just to schools under state intervention to $4 million instead of $6.1 million. That way, they said, there would be more leftover so that other low-rated schools that need help — but don’t qualify for state intervention — can apply for potential funds.

“All of them need at least some support,” said Williamson. “Otherwise, we’ll get them some support (when it’s too late), and it’ll be four years later and students, in the meantime, are the ones who suffer.”

But state board staff members argued that Indiana made a commitment to the schools under state intervention, and keeping their funding more consistent with what it has been in the past is the board’s responsibility.

“These are schools that we’re responsible for,” said board member Tony Walker, who represents Northwest Indiana. “How do we deliver a better school back to the district when we’re taking $1 million out from the people running the schools?”

The biggest discrepancy in funding proposals was for Charter Schools USA, the charter company that stepped in to manage three Indianapolis Public Schools when they were taken over by the state in 2011. The state board, which hired CSUSA, suggested maintaining the funding at close to the same rate. But the department of education suggested slashing CSUSA’s funding by $1.8 million for the three schools, in order to direct funds to other struggling schools.

McCormick said the department’s suggestions were based primarily on the number of schools that operators were in charge of. CSUSA, for example, is responsible for three schools. Indianapolis Public Schools, in charge of seven, would have gotten $1.4 million under the department’s plan. (The state board plan has them at $1.2 million.)

State board staff said their recommendations were more aligned with what the turnaround schools had budgeted themselves.

IPS referendum

Seeking property tax hikes, Indianapolis Public Schools considers selling headquarters

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

As Indianapolis Public Schools leaders prepare to ask voters for more money, they are considering a dramatic move: Selling the district’s downtown headquarters.

The administration is exploring the sale of its building at 120 E. Walnut St., which has housed the district’s central office since 1960, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Although architecturally dated, the concrete building has location in its favor. It sits on a 1.7-acre lot, just blocks from the Central Library, the cultural trail, and new development.

A sale could prove lucrative for the cash-strapped Indianapolis Public Schools, which is facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year.

A decision to sell the property could also convince voters, who are being asked to approve property taxes hikes in November, that the district is doing all it can to raise money. Two referendums to generate additional revenue for schools are expected to be on the ballot.

“IPS has been very committed and aggressive to its efforts to right-sizing and being good stewards to taxpayers dollars,” Ferebee said. “Hopefully, that [will] provide much confidence to taxpayers that when they are making investments into IPS, they are strong investments.”

Before going to taxpayers for more money, the district has “exhausted most options for generating revenue,” Ferebee added.

The administration is selling property to shrink the physical footprint of a district where enrollment has declined for decades. The number of students peaked at nearly 109,000 late-1960s. This past academic year, enrollment was 31,000.

During Ferebee’s tenure, officials say Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk its central office spending. But the district continues to face longstanding criticism over the expense of its administrative staff at a time when school budgets are tight.

Ferebee’s administration has been selling underused buildings since late 2015, including the former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Mass. Ave., and at least three former school campuses. Selling those buildings has both cut maintenance costs and generated revenue. By the end of this year, officials expect to have sold 10 properties and raised nearly $21 million.

But the district is also embroiled in a more complicated real estate deal. After closing Broad Ripple High School, the district wants to sell the property. But state law requires that charter schools get first dibs on the building, and two charter high schools recently floated a joint proposal to purchase the building.

The prospect of selling the central office raises a significant challenge: If the building were sold, the district would either need to make a deal for office space at the site or find a new location for its employees who work there. Ferebee said the district is open to moving these staffers, so long as the new location is centrally located, and therefore accessible to families from all around the district.

It will likely be months before the district decides whether or not to sell the property. The process will begin in late July or early August when the district invites developers to submit proposals for the property, but not a financial bid, according to Abbe Hohmann, a commercial real estate consultant who has been helping the district sell property since 2014.

Once the district sees developers’ ideas, leaders will make a decision about whether or not to sell the building. If it decides to move forward, it would proceed with a more formal process of a request for bids, and could make a decision on a bid in early 2019, Hohmann said.

Hohmann did not provide an estimate of how much the central office building could fetch. But when it comes to other sales, the district has “far exceeded our expectations,” she said. “We’ve had a great response from the development community.”

Eyes on

Happening at a campus near you: Here’s what the security review of every public school in Tennessee looks like

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sumner County Schools safety coordinator Katie Brown and Gallatin police Lt. Billy Vahldiek examine the window pane in a school hallway to make sure the glass is shatter-resistant. The review team is one of more than a hundred across the state who are conducting security assessments this summer of every Tennessee public school.

Balancing a clipboard in one hand and a coffee tumbler in the other, Katie Brown bends down to inspect a window pane in the hallway of a 10-year-old Tennessee school building.

The glass is shatter-resistant. Check.

Down the hall, Lt. Billy Vahldiek opens an outside exit door and then watches as it latches and locks properly. Check.

Earlier that morning, both Brown and Vahldiek circled the elementary school’s outside perimeter to make sure lighting is adequate, signage is clear, and landscaping doesn’t create blind spots where an intruder could hide.

The pair — one a school safety coordinator, the other a police officer — are teaming up on this day in Sumner County, north of Nashville, to walk through several schools and review security protocols with their principals as part of a statewide review.

“A lot of these schools were built post-Columbine, and some of them are post-Sandy Hook, but none of them are post-Parkland,” said Vahldiek, a Gallatin police officer, chronologically listing three of the nation’s most horrific school shootings.

Aging school facilities and heightened safety concerns are the prime drivers behind Tennessee’s sweeping summertime inspection of all 1,800 of its public school campuses. Gov. Bill Haslam ordered the unprecedented assessment in March following an intruder’s fatal shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The state’s goal is to identify vulnerabilities that could put Tennessee students and staff at similar risk — and to inform districts how they should use $35 million in safety grants in the months ahead.

Tennessee is among states that responded to Parkland by stepping up their upcoming budgets for thwarting potential attackers. This spring, Haslam and the Legislature doubled to $10 million the amount of recurring annual safety grants — and also provided a one-time investment of $25 million. A share of the money will become available to all 147 districts beginning in July based on Tennessee’s school funding formula — but only after the school systems provide the state with safety inventories of all of their schools.

"It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this."Mike Hermann, Tennessee Department of Education

“It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this,” said Mike Hermann, who is helping to coordinate the review in behalf of the state Education Department.

“Our work is definitely cut out for us this summer,” added Commissioner David Purkey, whose Safety and Homeland Security department is spearheading the initiative. “But there’s a sense of urgency. We want to get it all done by the start of the school year, at least that’s our goal.”

As of this week, about a third of the inspection reports had been submitted — on pace with the state’s timetable. In mid-July, Tennessee will begin accepting applications for the extra spending money.

Most of the one-time grants are expected to further harden school campuses with improvements like upgraded security cameras, fixing or replacing broken locks or outdated doors, and beefing up front entrances. The smaller annual funding could be tapped to hire law enforcement officers to police some campuses, though the money is a drop in the bucket toward providing coverage for every school. There’s also opportunity to invest in mental health services if that’s identified as a local priority.


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The money will only go so far. Still, officials believe the safety review lays the groundwork for next steps.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for schools to make an honest appraisal of where they are with security,” Hermann said. “And we’re going to have a much clearer picture of where we are statewide so that future action by the next governor and General Assembly can be based on a higher level of information.”

The reviews are conducted by local teams who participated in regional trainings provided by the state Safety and Homeland Security Department. Comprised of school personnel and local law enforcement, each two-person team follows an 89-point checklist of risks and precautions based on national standards developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
On-site security reviews are being conducted in schools statewide this summer under an order from Gov. Bill Haslam.

Depending on the building’s age and size, each review usually take two to three hours as inspection teams meet with the principal and inspect the physical facility. Can a school control access to the building? Do all staff wear photo identification badges on campus? Do teachers keep their classroom doors locked?

“The days of propping open doors on a pretty day are gone,” said Brown as she and Vahldiek went through the checklist during one inspection.

The teams also document the availability of personnel for security and for student support services such as school psychologists, as well as relationships with local law enforcement and healthcare providers. Finally, they submit their reports to the state and include copies of each school’s emergency plans and its drill logs from the previous year.

Unfortunately, summertime does not lend itself to seeing a school on a typical school day. For now, the buildings are mostly empty of students and staff as classrooms are painted, floors are waxed, and maintenance performed. But Brown views school break as a good time to look at the nitty-gritty details and to have thoughtful, unrushed conversations with school leaders that should trickle down to faculty and staff.

“We absolutely are taking this seriously,” said Brown, who is coordinating 46 reviews for Sumner County Schools.

“Most things on the checklist are not requirements or codes; they’re recommendations and best practices,” she said. “But this raises our awareness. It reinforces the good things we’re already doing. And it will inform how we use the safety grants.”

Editor’s note: This story does not name the school being inspected as a condition of Chalkbeat’s reporter shadowing the review team.