loose ends

Funding for no-longer-turnaround schools still an open question

Rejoice is turning to concern about funding at schools newly spared from an aggressive overhaul process.

The seven schools — all with top grades on the city’s performance metrics — pulled from the Department of Education’s “turnaround” roster on Monday were positioned to receive about $15 million in federal School Improvement Grants next year.

Being taken off the turnaround list means the schools won’t have to replace half of their teachers, lose their names, or get new principals. But it also means that they might not receive the funds: A letter distributed by the Department of Education to students at the schools on Tuesday states, “We regret that this [change] may result in the loss of federal resources for your school.”

The funds could make the difference between continued improvement and backsliding for the schools.

Five of the seven schools had received SIG funds in 2010 and 2011, enabling them to pay for enhancements that their principals said led to quick improvements. At Brooklyn’s School of Global Studies, nearly $1 million received under “transformation” allowed the school to buy new technology and hire expert teachers. William E. Grady Career and Technical High School paid for tutoring, college trips, an extended program, and Saturday school for students who had fallen behind. Both schools scored B’s on their most recent city progress reports after years of low grades.

“If we don’t get the money we wont be able to finish what we started,” Geraldine Maione, Grady’s principal, said this week. “We started out on the premise that we were getting this money for three years because that is what we were told.”

The city has signaled that it would like to see the schools get the extra aid. When he announced the turnaround changes, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the department would “continue to support these schools in their growth.” On Thursday, he said the city was examining its capacity to provide extra funding.

But Walcott did not specify whether the schools would receive the same level of additional funding that they would have received under turnaround. He also did not specify whether the schools would be able to carry out the enhancements, such as restructuring into small learning communities or adding new technical programs, that the city had detailed in public proposals for each school. Department officials have declined to answer those questions this week.

There are three ways the funding question could be resolved.

The city could ask the schools to carry on without any extra funds — but that would risk setting the schools back, exactly the outcome that Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said was undesirable when she spoke out against turnaround at Grady and other schools that had shown improvements.

Plus, the seven schools are still on the state’s list of “persistently low-achieving” schools, so the city must submit new plans showing how it will help them improve. Plans that do not call for extra funding could run into trouble getting approved — particularly after the city briefly argued that the schools desperately need additional funds. If city officials suddenly say they were wrong about the schools’ need, their credibility in requesting turnaround funding for 26 schools still slated for the process could be damaged.

Another option, to try again to seek federal funds for the schools, would require new teacher evaluations to be in place so the schools could be restored to “transformation” and restart, the federal reform processes most of them had already been undergoing. The city’s letter to students at the seven schools suggested that this option is on the table, saying, “However, we are continuing to press for an agreement with the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers union, to implement a strong teacher evaluation system” that would allow “a different school improvement model.”

In some ways, an agreement seems within reach. After all, the union and city have announced an agreement on a key point of dispute from the failed talks, and union and city officials are scheduled to have their first session next week with a mediator who is charged with jump-starting evaluation talks for the schools that were undergoing transformation and restart.

But the city bristled at being ordered back into talks, and it is hard to imagine the city and union working out and implementing new teacher evaluations in seven schools when they failed reach a deal for 33 schools — giving rise to the impasse that prompted the turnaround plan in the first place.

Finally, the city could simply come up with funds from its own coffers to make up the difference. Funding enhancements at seven schools with top grades would raise issues of equity, and the city has signaled that it has limited tolerance for paying a bill it believes the state should cover with federal funds. When the Panel for Educational Policy last month approved a contract for nonprofit partnerships at 11 schools that were undergoing “restart” this year, department officials said the schools would cease to receive funding if the state does not approve SIG funds for next year.

But there are also signs that the city could shoulder the costs. In its plans for the schools, the Department of Education suggested that it might be able to foot the bill, saying that it would carry out turnaround even if the state did not agree to fund the efforts. And $15 million is a tiny line item for a department with a total budget of more than $20 billion — especially when the city is receiving more school aid from the state this year than it had anticipated.

On Thursday, Walcott said the department was exploring how to meet the seven schools’ funding. “I’ll be talking to the principals and getting more information from them and listening to their feedback and then we’ll be making the determinations,” he said. “What we’re doing is looking at our finances as well and how we could financially support them. We want to make sure we can continue their progress.”

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”

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.”