moving on

Walcott visits ex-turnaround schools without addressing turmoil

Dennis Walcott, with Principal Magdalen Radovich, students, and several officials from the Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation, announced an AT&T grant to fund Flushing HS after-school programs.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott has quietly visited several former “turnaround” schools in recent weeks, but he has done so without calling attention to the fact that the city planned to close them until just a few months ago.

During the first week of school, Walcott made unannounced visits to two of the schools in Brooklyn. At John Dewey High School, where large-scale scheduling problems are prevailing, he shook hands with students one morning. He stopped by William Grady Career and Technical High School, which was removed from the turnaround roster in April, the same day. Neither visit made his public schedule, and department officials said they had nothing to do with the schools’ ex-turnaround status. Instead, the stops were like many that the chancellor, an avid school visitor, has made outside of public view, the officials said.

And on Wednesday, he shared the stage with the new principal of Flushing High School at a press conference heralding a substantial grant from AT&T to the Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation, which runs an after-school program at the school. Working in about 150 city schools, SASF was only the second group, after the YMCA of New York, to receive a grant through Aspire, a $250 million AT&T grant program aimed at boosting college readiness among high-need students. The grant will help SASF hire staff to support its program at Flushing, which includes targeted efforts to help incoming ninth-graders make up academic ground.

Speaking to the students and staff who attended the press conference, Walcott praised SASF and said, “We expect success from all of you to not just achieve but to achieve at a high level. To do that you need to support great teachers, you need to support great leaders, we need to support families, not-for-profits, the generosity of corporate giving.”

But he did not acknowledge the turmoil the school had gone through in recent months as the city tried to close and reopen it using the turnaround process. Nor did he note the school’s leadership change, made in turnaround’s early stages. And after the press conference, Walcott ducked out without talking to reporters. A department spokeswoman said he was late to a meeting and would be taking questions over email instead, but the spokeswoman did not respond by day’s end.

The city was in the process of overhauling Flushing and 23 other struggling schools when an arbitrator ruled this summer that the city’s staffing plans violated its contract with the teachers union. Many of the changes were reversed, and since the year began, students and teachers at some of the schools have complained of confusion and disorganization that they say might be the result of abrupt leadership and staffing changes that cut into planning time administrators normally reserve over the summer.

While Walcott spoke inside Flushing’s light-filled auditorium shortly after 3 p.m., a half dozen students milled about the school grounds, waiting for the school’s 4:30 p.m. dismissal. All said they had left early because their last period of the day was a Spanish class that has not yet been assigned a teacher for the year. Other students said they had noted few changes to the school since the previous school year but had been surprised to receive first semester schedules that included classes they had not requested or had already taken and passed, such as art.

Scores of students rallied in defense of the school and its principal of one year, Carl Hudson, last winter during a tense public hearing on the city’s plan to close the school. Hudson was arrested near school shortly after the school year ended for possession of methamphetamine, but the city had already planned to replace him with Radovich, a former assistant principal at Queens Vocational Career and Technical High School.

Radovich told reporters on Wednesday she is optimistic about the changes ahead for Flushing and was unfamiliar with students’ complaints. She said she has been offering her staff new professional development opportunities to help them prepare for the rollout of new learning standards.

“The challenge is really to make sure that all of the adults stay focused,” she said. “Trying to meet the mandates and the expectations that we all know are on target, you need to be able to reeducate and retrain teachers, administrators, and for me it was a tremendous learning curve as well.”

One group of students that should see positive changes right away is Flushing’s large population of English language learners and recent immigrants, she said.

“One of the things we did over the summer was we looked very very carefully at how the ELL students are being serviced and we have reprogrammed the entire building to make sure we are providing the mandated services that students need,” Radovich said. “Also we have started through the parent coordinator to start to reach out more to community resources.”

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.