Who Is In Charge

Gebhardt gets construction board seat

Kathleen Gebhardt, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs’ in the Lobato v. State school funding lawsuit, has been named to a vacant seat on the state Capital Construction Assistance Board. The board decides on grants from the Building Excellent Schools Today program.

Kathleen Gebhardt
Kathleen Gebhardt

Gebhardt runs the non-profit Boulder law firm Children’s Voices and filed the original Lobato lawsuit in 2005. A Denver judge ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor late last year, finding the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional. The case currently is on appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court. (Get more information in the EdNews Lobato archive.)

She was appointed by Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, a legislative lame duck who currently is running for Congress in the 4th District.

Gebhardt said Tuesday evening that she didn’t seek the seat but that “several” members of the construction board had suggested her name to Shaffer.

Asked if she thought there was an sort of conflict of interest in joining a state board when she’s suing the state, Gebhardt said, “I struggled with that” but decided it’s not a problem. She said she will recuse herself in grant applications involving the 21 school districts that are plaintiffs in Lobato.

Gebhardt also was a lead attorney in another school-related lawsuit against the state, Giardino v. State Board of Education. That suit, filed in 1998, challenged the lack of state funding for school facilities. The case was settled in 2000, with the state agreeing to allocate $190 million a year over 10 years for school buildings. Those payments ended after the BEST law was passed in 2008.

Under the complicated formula created by that law, various members of the nine-person board are appointed by the State Board of Education, the governor, the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate and the minority leaders of the House and Senate.

Board members also have to represent various constituencies, such as different sizes of school districts, or have specific professional expertise in school design, construction and facilities management. The board’s conflict of interest policy requires members to recuse themselves on applications involving their districts or districts their employers do business with.

The vacancy filled by Shaffer is for “one member who has public school finance expertise and knowledge regarding public school trust lands,” in the words of state law. The BEST program receives a portion of revenues from school trust lands to finance its grants.

Mary Wickersham
Mary Wickersham

Gebhardt replaces Mary Wickersham, an original board member who served as chair. As a researcher working with the Donnell-Kay Foundation, Wickersham laid some of the groundwork that led to the BEST law. She later worked as an aide to then-Treasurer Cary Kennedy, a key advocate for passage of the law. The treasurer’s office is responsible for setting up the financing of BEST projects. Wickersham, who now works for the Piton Foundation, recently resigned from the construction board.

Board members can serve up to three consecutive two-year terms. (Find out about other board members here.)

The board has one remaining vacancy, a position that is supposed to be filled by an architect and which is appointed by the governor. Another vacancy recently was filled with the appointment of Pete Hall, facilities manager for the Poudre school district.

The construction board and the Division of Public School Capital Construction Assistance are part of the Colorado Department of Education. The state board and education Commissioner Robert Hammond are named as defendants in the Lobato case.

Some construction board members recently discussed whether the body should file a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the Lobato plaintiffs. But the matter was dropped after the state attorney general’s office advised the board it couldn’t do that because it’s part of a state agency.

Another state agency, the University of Colorado Board of Regents, has intervened in the Lobato case on the side of the state, at the urging of Attorney General John Suthers. The regents are an elected board.

New mayor

Illinois charter PAC ready to spend millions in Chicago elections

PHOTO: Creative Commons

A pro-charter Illinois PAC will expand its focus from statewide politics into Chicago’s upcoming mayoral and alderman elections, with a plan to infuse millions of dollars into contested races where education is at issue.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for urban public education,” Andrew Broy, president of INCS Action, a political action committee that advocates for charter schools in Illinois, told Chalkbeat. “We expect to spend a seven-figure sum in each of these races.”

INCS Action is the political advocacy arm of the Illinois Network for Charters Schools, and in the past has advocated for lifting a cap on charters statewide and against a statewide charter moratorium.

The expansion of charter schools is a live-wire issue in Chicago, with some advocates arguing that the growth of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, pushes out resources for neighborhood schools in low-income areas. Charter advocates, meanwhile, argue the charter school model offers a faster way to bring high-quality education to students in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools has 121 charter schools, down 7 percent from two years ago when the teachers union negotiated a cap on charter enrollment.

The upcoming elections make up just one part of a the network’s larger legislative agenda, with three of its five legislative goals already in place, Broy said. They’ve established the state charter school commission, secured charter funding equity in Illinois, and created a 10-year renewal term for charter contracts, he said, adding, “we still need to secure state facility funding and lift the cap on charter schools nationwide.”

INCS Action has not yet named the candidates it will support, but said its criteria for endorsement include contested races featuring candidates with different positions on charter schools. “For aldermanic races, if we can impact 2,000 or 3,000 votes in a ward, that offers a lot of opportunity,” Broy said.

Aldermen can introduce city-level resolutions against charter openings or ban a charter’s expansion into their ward or, if they are supportive, offer tax-increment financing for charter school buildings or other investments.

The Chicago Teachers Union also runs a PAC, through which it has supported candidates at the state, mayoral and aldermanic levels. The union opposes charter expansion. 

Broy expects his group will support candidates by sending out mailers, canvassing and telephoning voters.

According to election finance data obtained by Illinois Sunshine, the INCS Action PAC has already contributed more than $65,000 to the campaigns of state-level candidates for congressional seats in Illinois since Sept. 11. The largest sums went to the campaigns of Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, the House minority leader, and Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton.

In state-level races, INCS Action has been a heavy hitter since it started in 2013. This past spring, the organization said in a press release that 13 of the 15 primary candidates for Illinois’ state Senate and House of Representatives supported by the group won their primaries.

The next governor could play a big role in the future of charter schools in Illinois, and by extension in Chicago, but Broy says the committee has declined to endorse a candidate because of the amount of spending required to sway a candidate or the election. The committee gets more bang for its buck focusing on local races.

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker have staked out opposing positions on the charter debate, with Rauner a supporter of charter schools, while his opponent says he’d place a moratorium on opening new charters.

Meanwhile, Broy said his political action committee will soon begin throwing money into campaigns he believes they can win. “In some races, we see a pathway to victory with our support.”


Heated Debate

Candidates clash over innovation schools and high school closures in IPS Board campaigns

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang / Chalkbeat
Candidates for the District 3 and District 5 seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board debated at a forum hosted Tuesday night by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Central Library.

In the races for three seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, candidates are sharply split over whether the district is moving in the right direction.

The divisions were clear during a forum Tuesday night hosted by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Indianapolis Public Library. Some of the most heated discussions came over the district’s recent decision to close high schools and move to an all-choice high school model, and candidates also clashed over the district’s innovation partnerships with outside operators to run schools — including some where students have struggled the most.

“It’s just disruptive when you just keep changing and changing and changing,” said ceramics studio owner and IPS parent Joanna Krumel, who goes by Jodi, a challenger in the at-large race. “Especially when the district was doing a good job with the programs that they had.”

Retired IPS teacher Susan Collins, who is also running for the at-large seat lamented the closure of high schools that had long legacies in their neighborhoods: “Why do we let our good programs die?” she said.

But at-large incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan defended the district’s decisions, pushing back on the perception that schools have taken a turn for the worse.

“I don’t think we were doing well. I don’t think all was all right with IPS. I think we were patient for too long with strategies that weren’t moving the needle for kids,” said Sullivan, a former Democratic state lawmaker.

Read more: Sort through each school board district race and see candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

Candidates also debated the district’s low test scores, financial transparency, community engagement, and equity of access to highly sought-after magnet programs.

Often, their disagreements illustrated long-standing rifts between advocates and critics of school choice.

The at-large challengers denounced the district’s partnerships with charter schools, influential charter supporters such as The Mind Trust, and the Indy Chamber on finances and its referendum efforts.

“There is too much incursion by business interests in the education of our children,” Collins said.

Krumel said she didn’t support working so closely with charter schools, either: “I don’t think that charter schools are here to stay. At least I hope they’re not.”

But Sullivan called those “adult battles” over politics that distract from addressing the needs of children.

“I’m just very sad that we still have the same kinds of conversations that take our eyes off the prize of being able to offer every single kid in the city of Indianapolis a great opportunity,” Sullivan said. “I would like to have more conversations about where we’re going, what’s possible — and not a return to something that I don’t think were ever really glory days, especially not for too many of our students of color and students in poverty.”

In the race for the open seat in District 3, which represents the north side, one candidate supported innovation schools while two others expressed concerns.

“I see innovation schools, frankly, as the next generation of the district willing to take risks, to do what it takes to serve our students,” said Evan Hawkins, executive director of facilities and procurement for Marian University and an IPS parent. “Innovations schools are not the panacea, but innovation represents one of those options that the district has … [to] ensure that our schools stay locally controlled.”

But Sherry Shelton said she wanted to support ideas proven to work, and she didn’t believe the innovation schools showed enough positive results.

“I don’t think we should take a chance with our students,” said Shelton, director of information services for Pike Township schools. “I think we should stop the innovation schools, re-evaluate the program, tweak it, and if it’s something that we’re going to move forward with, that we develop a successful process to open those, evaluate, and keep them up to a certain standard.”

Michele Lorbieski, a trial attorney with Frost Brown Todd and an IPS parent, said the innovation schools cause disruption, and said they haven’t shown as much improvement as is often touted.

“I think we need to pump the brakes on these innovation schools,” she said. “We’re doing a pilot to figure out if our high school students should take the IndyGo bus, but we didn’t even pilot the innovation schools. So let’s make sure they’re effective before we keep going down this path at this pace we’re going.”

In the race for District 5, which represents the northwest side of the city, candidate Taria Slack outlined the challenges of teacher turnover that she has seen in the innovation schools that her three children attend.

“I think we need to stop replicating this program until we have better research on what’s really going on,” said Slack, a federal worker. “We need to make sure that our kids are hitting every last one of these benchmarks.”

But incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an IPS parent, said families and community members sometimes feel innovation schools are the best fit for their neighborhoods.

“Sometimes the innovation school option is the best option,” she said. “So I see charter schools and innovation schools as part of our educational landscape, part of our toolbox if you will, to look at what’s the best option for our children in a specific neighborhood.”

Watch the full forum: