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.

checking in

How do you turn around a district? Six months into her tenure, Sharon Griffin works to line up the basics.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
When Sharon Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

In a crowded room at a community center in a north Memphis neighborhood, the leader of Tennessee’s turnaround district takes a microphone and addresses the parents and students gathered.

“I’m here because we care deeply about your students, and we know we can do better for them,” Sharon Griffin told the crowd. “We have to do that together.”

This would be one of more than three dozen community events in Memphis that Griffin would speak at during her first six months on the job. The gatherings have ranged from this parent night in Frayser to a luncheon with some of the city’s biggest business leaders. And Sharon Griffin’s message remained unchanged: Stay with us, we’re going to get better.

“One of my biggest goals was getting our communities to think differently about the district,” Griffin told Chalkbeat this month. “People only interact with the superintendent or the central office when there’s an issue. We want to meet people where they are and tell them what we are going to do for them.”

When Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would be reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

Griffin, a turnaround veteran from Memphis, has been assigned the task of improving academic performance and the public perception of the state district. Originally created to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools academically, the district of charter operators has struggled to show improvement. Of the 30 schools in the district, nine have climbed out of the bottom 5 percent.

Griffin’s efforts are in line with what Education Commissioner Candice McQueen asked her to prioritize: recruit and support effective educators, improve collaboration with schools and in doing so, plan strategically with them.

But first she’s doubling down on improving the way the district functions – such as making sure that the district is in compliance with federal and state grants, and that teachers have the certifications they need to teach certain courses. And that’s taken more time than expected.

Researchers, as well as community members and parents, have said that the district should be seeing greater academic progress after six years. Griffin told Chalkbeat that one of her big priorities will be helping the district better its teaching workforce, which she believes will help improve test scores. In the most recent batch of state test scores, not a single Achievement School District elementary, middle, or high school had more than 20 percent of students scoring on grade level in English or math.

But first, she needed to go on a “listening tour.”

“I’ve been to more meetings than I can count, because I wanted people to get to know me in this role, but more importantly, because I wanted to hear from those in our schools about what’s working and what’s not,” Griffin said. “Now, I get to take what I’ve heard and learned and create action steps forward.”

Griffin said those action look like “better customer service for our charters and our families.” That means Griffin has been focusing on improving communication with the district’s central office, one of the longstanding problems she has heard about from operators. She’s also striving to improve the quality of the district’s teacher workforce, and making facilities safer and more usable.

Griffin’s task will be a mammoth one, and she told Chalkbeat that part of her strategy for getting it done revolves around her new central office team. She said that getting the office running smoothly has taken up a large portion of her time during these early months in the job – especially establishing the revamped office so her charter operators can better communicate with the district. A year ago, more than half of 59 central office staff positions were slashed – and Griffin’s team of four is now even smaller.

“We’re still small but mighty,” Griffin said. “But I wanted our charters to know where to go with a problem or a question. Same for parents. We had heard they didn’t know where to go. That’s changing.”

Some charter operators have already benefited from the change. Dwayne Tucker, the CEO of LEAD Public Schools, said the district has become more responsive this year and more respectful of charter operators’ time. LEAD runs two turnaround schools in Nashville, the district’s only outside of Memphis

“Previously, we’d get a request for data or information that needed a 24-hour turnaround because someone just realized that it needed to be fulfilled,” Tucker said. “Versus looking at us as the customer and planning so we didn’t need to drop everything. There’s more of a customer-service focus happening on ASD leadership now.”

Griffin’s also been turning to charter operators like LEAD for lessons learned – specifically about teacher recruitment and retention. She said she wants to see what charters are doing well and replicate those practices across the district. When Griffin visited Tucker at LEAD this fall, he said they talked mostly about hiring practices.

“She asked us a lot of questions about the teachers we’re looking for,” Tucker said. “We know that our teachers need to have a sense of purpose to do this work, because a turnaround environment is very hard work.”

Earlier in the year, Griffin also turned to the Memphis-based Freedom Prep, which runs one turnaround school, for lessons learned in retaining teachers.

“Our retention rate in the ASD in the past has not been great,” Griffin said. “I’m the third superintendent in six years, so you can imagine what the teacher retention rate is. Freedom Prep is one of the schools that has had a higher retention rate. Why? They’re focused on teacher support.”

A goal for Griffin during the first month or so as chief was to establish an advisory team of local parents, students, and faith leaders – and that hasn’t happened yet. But Griffin says the team is being assembled now, and that their input would be a big factor in the future.

Collaboration is key for Griffin, who is known for bringing groups with different interests together to find common ground.

“My goal is to work us out of a job,” Griffin said. “When we have empowered all of our teachers and leaders to build capacity within schools, the hope is that they won’t need us anymore.”

new kids on the block

Meet the newly elected Indianapolis Public Schools board members

Three newcomers were elected Tuesday to the Indianapolis Public Schools board. From left: Susan Collins, Evan Hawkins, and Taria Slack.

In a shakeup of the Indianapolis Public Schools board, two challengers unseated incumbents in Tuesday’s election.

In all, three newcomers will join the school board: retired teacher Susan Collins, Marian University administrator Evan Hawkins, and federal employee Taria Slack.

Learn more about where the new school board members stand on issues such as the district’s budget woes, school closings, and innovation schools, from their responses to our candidate survey published last month.