rebooting renewal

Fariña, de Blasio and Mulgrew aim to fire up principals at Renewal event

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Michael Mulgrew, Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, pictured together last year, each addressed principals of schools in the Renewal program on Monday.

This school year isn’t yet over, but the principals and nonprofit leaders taking part in the city’s high-stakes school turnaround initiative are already focused on the next one.

A private event for the 94 low-performing schools on Monday featured words of encouragement from Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña, along with time for schools to refine their improvement plans for next year. Principals said the event was part pep rally, part professional development session, and was designed to energize those who will be on the front lines as the city tries to prove it can improve those schools with a combination of academic help and resources to meet students’ non-academic needs.

“I have to say that failure is not an option,” Fariña said, according to a transcript provided by her spokeswoman. “There are many people watching what’s happening in New York City. Not just in the state, but across the country.”

The event, which took place at New York University, also included speeches from teachers union President Michael Mulgrew and principals union President Ernest Logan. Mulgrew told the attendees that the program offered an “opportunity to shut up the critics,” according to a union chapter leader who tweeted some paraphrased remarks.

Their remarks reflect the high stakes attached to the city’s program, which takes a very different approach to school improvement than de Blasio’s predecessor Michael Bloomberg, whose strategies included closing struggling schools and replacing them. De Blasio’s “Renewal” program is meant to offer schools all the resources they need to succeed before the city considers more dramatic shake-ups or closure. But schools don’t have much time: Many of the new services will make their debut at the start of next school year, giving schools two years to meet their goals.

Principals spent Monday finalizing the school improvement plans that are due to the state by the end of July. Drafts were due June 19, and Monday’s meeting gave principals a chance to revise them with feedback from their superintendents. Revised drafts are due Wednesday.

Those plans will include the student performance benchmarks that the schools will have to hit by 2017. Next year, elementary and middle schools will be expected to show improved attendance, while high schools will also be expected to show some academic gains. All schools also have some choice as to how they will be judged, and can choose other metrics, including parent and student survey results and high school graduation data.

“The best Renewal Schools I’ve been visiting already have data all over their bulletin boards,” Fariña told attendees. “When you walk into that office and right away you know who the bottom quartile kids, which kids need more math support, which kids need more reading support.”

A principal who attended said that the presence of city leaders offered a sense of shared responsibility.

“Those are all the people responsible for the work,” said the principal, who declined to provide her name because she was not authorized to discuss the meeting. “Our success is their success and our failure is their failure.”

Also present at the event were representatives from community-based organizations, which are partnering with schools to provide non-academic services as part of a broader strategy to convert the struggling schools into “community schools.” The city is planning to spend up to $108 million on the Renewal program next year, much of which will go toward paying teachers to work longer school days and for contracts with those outside providers.

“This is not an add-on; it’s not an extra, because these are not after school programs,” Fariña said of the programs. “This is: how do you work in classrooms with teachers, particularly if there’s social-emotional support that you’re giving students and teachers?”

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.