Shake up

Rocketship becomes latest charter network to pull the plug on Tennessee’s Achievement School District

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students help each other in the learning lab of a Nashville charter school operated by Rocketship. The charter network announced plans this week to close another Nashville school operated under Tennessee's Achievement School District.

Tennessee’s school turnaround district has had a rocky month, with two national charter networks announcing plans to close their schools and exit the Achievement School District.

Rocketship became the latest network to pull the plug when the California-based organization announced Thursday that it will shutter Partners Community Prep in Nashville at the end of the school year. The K-2 school just opened last fall, but only had 50 students enrolled. Leaders had hoped for 250.

Weeks earlier, Houston-based Project GRAD USA announced plans to close its Memphis high school this spring — also for enrollment reasons — effectively ending that network’s partnership with the ASD.

The exodus comes as Tennessee also seeks to reset the district that state lawmakers created in 2010 as a school turnaround agent. Both schools closing were started from scratch — a deviation from the district’s original model of taking control of low-performing schools and recruiting charter operators to turn them around.

Founding ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic allowed “new starts” as he sought to develop the district that launched in 2012, but the state stopped allowing them last year as part of its plan under a new federal education law. Rocketship’s Nashville school was the last to open as a new start.

Low enrollment plagued Partners Community Prep from the outset. Rocketship leaders said they were up against a state law requiring ASD schools to recruit 75 percent of their students from zones that contain “priority schools” that are academically in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

“We underestimated the viability of the ASD framework outlined in state law …,” according to a statement from Rocketship. “The challenges we faced reinforces why the state is redirecting its school improvement efforts on other strategies.”

Those new strategies emphasize partnering with local districts to develop school improvement plans together instead of wresting control of struggling schools from them.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says the ASD will continue to be among Tennessee’s turnaround tools — but only as an intervention of last resort.

“We are completely committed to the work of the Achievement School District, and it is a key component of our comprehensive school improvement framework, which we codified in our plan to transition to the Every Student Succeeds Act,” McQueen said in a statement on Thursday. “The transitions we have made over the last few months have all been working to set the Achievement School District up for success and continued growth in the future.”

The closure of Partners Community Prep will be a first in Nashville for the state-run district and will leave two other ASD schools in the state’s capital city. The hub of the district’s work is in Memphis, where three state-run schools have closed, also due to challenges with enrollment.

With the exit of Rocketship and Project GRAD USA, the ASD will operate 30 schools in all at the end of the school year.

After last year’s restructuring of the district office and the departure of Superintendent Malika Anderson, interim leader Kathleen Airhart has sought to stabilize the ASD’s portfolio of schools and operators. Earlier Thursday, she announced plans to hand off the district’s operation of a Memphis middle school to a local charter network that already operates two state-run schools. That school will remain under the ASD’s oversight.

Rocketship will continue to operate two Nashville charter schools under Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Rocketship officials are hopeful that students at Partners will opt to attend Rocketship Nashville Northeast Elementary, which is four miles away, and said the operator will provide bus transportation for transferring students.

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.