Who Is In Charge

Indiana State Board of Education in limbo after legislature's move

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
The Indiana State Board of Education will hold its March meeting Wednesday.

Gov. Mike Pence made a bold call in December for big changes he said would “restore harmony” to the contentious Indiana State Board of Education, but did he get what he wanted?

A centerpiece of his plan to refocus the board, which he mostly selected, was to clear the way for a new chair, stripping state Superintendent Glenda Ritz of her guaranteed place in that seat.

He got it — sort of.

But the bigger and more immediate change is not something Pence asked for. And it’s not clear he’s entirely comfortable with it either.

If Pence signs Senate Bill 1, it will bring Indiana to a rare moment that will see 10 appointments to the state board happen all at once, rather than in smaller sets of appointments every two years.

The bill does let the board select someone other than Ritz as its leader as Pence wanted, but that change won’t come until after the 2016 election. So, for now, Ritz remains the chairwoman.

But in less than a month, other changes in the bill could theoretically replace all of the 10 appointed board members. Some will likely return but almost certainly not all of them.

That’s because, this time, Pence won’t get exclusive say as to who they will be.

Senate Bill 1 diminishes Pence’s power to appoint the state board, giving two of the 10 appointments to legislative leaders — House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President David Long. So he loses a not insignificant 20 percent of his appointments to the board.

Pence didn’t exactly praise that change when he met with reporters last week, but he wasn’t critical of the bill either.

“We’re currently reviewing that legislation,” he said. “There were a lot of moving parts late in that bill.”

Even so, he did list it among his legislative agenda items that were accomplished, noting that Indiana would join 48 other states that do not automatically make the state superintendent also the state board chair.

His office declined to say anything more about Senate Bill 1 today except that Pence will decide which bills he will sign before he leaves for China on Saturday.

The state board situation is so unusual, and unfolding so quickly, that even the current members don’t know their fates.

Last week, three of Pence’s appointees — David Freitas, Gordon Hendry and Brad Oliver — made the unusual move of issuing a statement asking to be reappointed.

“There have been significant changes made in education policy in Indiana in recent years that have been challenging at times to work through as a Board. At the end of the day, we’ve crafted and implemented policies that have moved Hoosier schools in the right direction for our kids,” they wrote.

Oliver said today he did not want to comment further until the governor acts.

Of the 10 appointees on the board today, five were chosen by Pence: college professors Freitas, of Indiana University South Bend, and Oliver, of Indiana Weslyean University; Hendry, a former Indianapolis deputy mayor; Henryville High School Principal Troy Albert; and Andrea Neal, a private school teacher and former Indianapolis Star editorial writer.

The other five all were first appointed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels and later reappointed by Pence: Avon teacher Sarah O’Brien; Huntington teacher Cari Whicker; Marian University President Dan Elsener; Gary attorney Tony Walker; and B.J. Watts, a teacher in Evansville.

That group has struggled to work with Ritz over the past two years.

In particular, Elsener, Oliver, Freitas, Hendry and O’Brien have routinely criticized Ritz as a poor leader and the Indiana Department of Education’s work as sometimes sub-par.

Ritz has been deeply critical of Pence and the hired staff that serves the state board, arguing they have worked to purposefully undermine her authority.

The effort to strip Ritz of her role as state board chair prompted a statehouse rally by her supporters earlier this year on the same day the Indiana House passed a bill aimed at limiting her powers.

While she retains her role as chairwoman through 2016, the legislature took other steps last week by passing bills that will reduce what had been her exclusive authority over aspects of A-to-F grading, state testing and student data.

Ritz even said last week she is so frustrated by the changes passed by the legislature and backed by Pence that she is considering challenging him for governor. That decision, she said, would be made by June.

The state board meets this week on Thursday.

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.

Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.