Handoff proposed

State-run district proposes shifting Memphis middle school to homegrown charter group

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Bobby White, who founded Frayser Community Schools in 2014, wants his charter organization to be the next leader of Westside Middle School.

After years of dwindling enrollment, the only middle school in Memphis that’s run directly by Tennessee’s turnaround district could be switching hands.

The proposed change would keep Westside Achievement Middle School in the state-run Achievement School District but take it out of the district’s direct management. The plan would be to move Westside to Frayser Community Schools, a Memphis-based charter network that already operates two ASD schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim ASD Superintendent Kathleen Airhart announces the proposed change during a community meeting.

Interim ASD Superintendent Kathleen Airhart announced the proposed change during a meeting Tuesday evening with more than 50 community members, parents, and students.

The recommendation is in line with major changes in the ASD in the last year as federal funding for the turnaround district has run out and Tennessee’s Department of Education has revised its turnaround strategies under a new federal education law.

The ASD manages five direct-run Memphis schools, all in the Frayser community, but there are no plans to relinquish control of the other four schools, according to Airhart. The other four are elementary schools.

Handing off Westside to Frayser Community Schools would allow the district to avoid the drastic step of closing the school — an option that three other charter operators in the ASD’s portfolio have chosen when faced with many of the same issues.

The discussion comes at a time when district leaders are trying to rehabilitate the ASD’s image after turnaround efforts at most of its 32 schools haven’t improved test scores as much as founding leaders promised. Earlier this month, officials with a Houston-based charter organization announced plans to shutter GRAD Academy, the district’s highest-performing high school, this spring due to enrollment and financial issues.

Airhart said a change is needed due to multiple challenges at Westside, including lagging enrollment, low test scores, and high teacher and principal turnover. The school’s enrollment has fallen by half since 2012, when it joined the state-run district, and lost 18 percent of students just this year.

“When I got here in October, I said there were places where the house was on fire,” Airhart told the crowd. “Places where we had to worry about big things before the small things. Westside was one of those places.”

The state won’t make an official decision until late February after parents, teachers, and students have had a chance to weigh in, Airhart said, adding that more meetings will be held over the next month. She said the district would continue to run the school if there is intense opposition.

This wouldn’t be the first time Frayser Community Schools has stepped in to manage an ASD school that’s struggling with test scores and enrollment. Last fall, the homegrown charter network took control of Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School when Gestalt Community Schools, another Memphis-based network, exited the district.

Bobby White, the CEO who founded Frayser Community Schools in 2014, has maintained that his organization has the relationships and know-how to build enrollment in Memphis while also making academic gains.

And he has a Westside tie: White was a principal at Westside nine years ago when it was operated by the former Memphis City Schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The state won’t make an official decision until late February after parents, teachers, and students have had a chance to weigh in.

“I’m nervous to speak to you all because this is my house,” White said at the parent meeting. “This is deeply personal to me. … I left schools to start a turnaround organization where we took over existing schools and turn them around. We can do that here.”

Several parents and community members in the room Tuesday said they were disappointed with the amount of teacher turnover at West Side Middle under the ASD, but expressed optimism about a change.

“I really have faith that if Bobby [White] comes here and teachers stay — good teachers come and stay — then my son can be successful here,” said Markeita Douglas, a Frayser resident with a 12-year-old son. “As a parent, I’m going to hold you accountable, because my son cannot fall through the cracks.”

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.