Casual Sunday IPS board meeting or 'travesty' of public access?

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
IPS board members talk at a public work session.

It was supposed to be a different kind of meeting for the Indianapolis Public School Board — a casual Sunday afternoon work session for the board to hash out a shared vision for the ‘school autonomy’ it has promised.

Casual it was — board members at times joked around and a sweatshirt-clad Superintendent Lewis Ferebee helped them set up before promptly leaving — but the meeting didn’t go as planned.

Because they met without staff, the board’s secretary wasn’t there to take her usual notes. So board members decided a reporter’s recording could suffice as a substitute. And without the microphones they normally use, some of the 15 or so people who attended complained that they couldn’t hear. In the audience were representatives from the teachers union and a union that represents maintenance workers.

The issues didn’t stop there.

Despite a warning from board president Diane Arnold that board members would not be taking questions or comments from the audience, one person yelled out his own ideas as the board tried to craft a vision statement.

Radio host Amos Brown of WTLC’s Amos in the Afternoons tweeted that the meeting was “disrespectful to the public” because audience members couldn’t hear board members.

“None of us can hear a word IPS Board members saying,” Brown tweeted under the handle @AmosWTLCIndy. “Travesty of (a) public meeting.”

Those concerns resulted in a back-and-forth between board members Gayle Cosby and Kelly Bentley. Cosby asked if the board should try to figure out a way to hook up a microphone so the audience could hear better. Bentley said the public could move their chairs up if they couldn’t hear the conversation.

There was also tension between board members about how the meeting would be reported.

“Did you just say you hope people aren’t blogging about this?” Cosby, who recently started a blog about school board issues, asked Bentley.

Bentley said she didn’t mean that.

“I hope people (who) are writing about this are fair because we’re just trying to have a conversation,” Bentley said.

Board members have made it clear they want principals to have more control of decisions about their schools. But how far that authority should extend is the question. Board members debated whether principals should have control over decisions like the budget, hiring, school calendars, building maintenance and more. No final decisions were made.

There was also discussion, however, of scrapping the board’s new principal selection process.

Cosby said the board should keep in place the process it approved last year designed to give school communities more of a say in picking principals. But Bentley and board member Caitlin Hannon said that makes it difficult to hold Ferebee accountable for the school’s performance. The community should be involved in other ways, they said.

And board members said they want teachers to have more control over curriculum and what happens in their classrooms.

Most board members said teachers face too many barriers to deliver lessons as they see fit. Instead, they said, teachers are held to strict guides that dictate what is taught and when. That takes the creativity out of teaching, board members said.

Board member Mary Ann Sullivan said the board should instead seek to limit the frequent student transfers that prompted those teaching guides.

“I think we’re trying to solve the wrong end of the problem,” Sullivan said.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede