no takeover

25 struggling New York City schools are safe from takeover, state officials say

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
MaryEllen Elia

New York City will not be forced to close or cede control of 25 low-performing schools targeted by a state program that threatens long-floundering schools with takeover by an outside manager.

State officials said Tuesday that all city schools in the “Receivership” program’s crosshairs met enough of their goals to avoid more serious consequences. In total, just two out of 63 schools statewide did not meet their 2016-17 goals, the officials said; neither school is in New York City.

“I have visited many of these schools, and I am seeing schools tackle their issues in new and positive ways, which is encouraging,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a statement. “At the same time, much work remains to be done in many of these schools.”

In 2015, state officials identified 62 city schools that for years had ranked among the bottom 5 percent statewide. The schools were given at least ten improvement goals each, including measures like attendance, suspension, and graduation rates. If they failed to make “demonstrable improvement” in those areas, the state could force the city to appoint an outside manager to run them.

But so far, almost all schools in the program have managed to avoid serious interventions. To date, just one New York City school has been threatened with outside takeover: a middle school in the Bronx that the city closed last year and replaced with a new school. (City officials also decided to to close another Receivership school, the Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design — a move that state officials did not publicly demand.)

At the same time, state officials have gradually reduced the number of city schools in Receivership over the past two years — from 62 down to 25 — a fact that drew criticism from Gov. Cuomo’s office.

To avoid interventions, schools in the Receivership program must earn at least 67 percent on a grading scale that factors in their goals. Districts must review the performance of schools that fail to meet that threshold, determine why they struggled, and “monitor and support” them over the current school year, according to state officials.

In New York City, five schools fall into that category. They will not face immediate takeover, but will be subjected to ongoing scrutiny this year.

Among the five city schools that fell below the 67 percent threshold are DeWitt Clinton High School (45 percent) and Flushing High School (62 percent). The city recently announced that the staffs at both schools will be forced to reapply for their jobs.

The state education department’s decision to force so few schools to undergo takeover has previously frustrated the governor. But Cuomo, who pushed for the Receivership law as a more aggressive intervention for struggling schools, has warmed to the approach favored by Mayor de Blasio and the state’s unions: infusing low-performing schools with resources instead of shutting them down.

Aaron Pallas, a Teachers College professor, said the state officials’ decision not to intervene in most Receivership schools could reflect their desire to move the state away from more aggressive, top-down reforms. 

“One easy way to do that is to declare victory and say schools have met the targets we set even if they’re not actually meeting those targets,” said Pallas, adding that the complexity of the state’s benchmarks make it difficult to know for sure.

But the 25 city schools in the Receivership program may not be completely out of the woods. All of those schools are also part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Renewal” turnaround program. Earlier this year, the mayor said more Renewal schools will be closed.

“These schools have made an important step in the right direction,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. “I will continue to closely monitor these schools on a range of factors including academic outcomes, teacher retention, attendance and the ability to engage families as partners.”

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.