A push for change

Governor-elect’s proposal would make future Indiana schools chiefs appointed, not elected

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Gov.-Elect Eric Holcomb presents his 2017 legislative agenda.

Gov.-Elect Eric Holcomb today announced that beginning in 2021, he wants to make Indiana’s elected schools chief a governor-appointed position.

“This is not about the person, me or the superintendent,” Holcomb said, referring to the state Superintendent-Elect, Republican Jennifer McCormick. “This is about the position and how it can be aligned (with the governor’s office) and work truly together.”

Holcomb said at a news conference Thursday afternoon that House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, would author the bill. Despite earlier comments from Bosma that he might not push for such a proposal this year, Bosma has said he’s long supported appointing the state superintendent.

Holcomb would not say whether McCormick supported the proposal. The secretary of education would report directly to the governor as part of the cabinet.

McCormick, formerly a school superintendent in Yorktown, near Muncie, could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

Less than two months ago, legislative leaders in both parties were not definitive about whether they’d want the superintendent position to be elected or appointed, or when that change might take place.

Politically, this move has been a long time coming. Former Gov. Mike Pence, now the U.S. Vice President-Elect, frequently butted heads with former Democrat state Superintendent Glenda Ritz over issues of testing, school A-F grades and who shapes the state’s education policy.

Those battles sparked conversations among lawmakers as recently as 2015 about making the position appointed, which most states already do. Ultimately, those conversations did not end with a change to the elected office. Instead, the law said that the state superintendent would be removed as the automatic leader of the Indiana State Board of Education after 2016.

Ritz served in the position through last month. Until a stunning loss in November, Ritz was the only Democrat elected to statewide office.

The proposal, if it passes the General Assembly, would not take effect until after McCormick’s upcoming term as Indiana’s top education official. She will be sworn in Monday and serves through 2020.

Today, House Minority Leader Scott Pelath said he could be convinced either way about whether electing or appointing is better, which marks a change from recent Democrat priorities to keep the state superintendent position strong and independent from the governor’s office.

“This idea has been kicked around between the parties for a long period of time,” Pelath said. “I just have to say as an individual taxpaying Hoosier, I can see the merits both ways. I’ve had an open mind to those things.”

However, Pelath said, he’s not sure the public will be as understanding. And really, he said, what matters is whether this change will result in any improvements to education overall.

“Making an office appointed when it’s been elected is always a bit of a tough sell,” Pelath said. “It’s one thing to make a change in how the office is picked. What policies follow — those are what really matter. And if it doesn’t make a change, then it’s not really much of a reform.”

Holcomb is expected to present his full budget plan next week, and Bosma said his bill will be filed on Monday.

olive branch?

New Montessori program to launch at Denver elementary, offering home for students at school slated to close

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students dance with brightly colored scarves during a music class at Gilpin Montessori (Denver Post photo).

Denver Public Schools moved quickly Friday to try to placate families upset by a vote to close a long-struggling Montessori school in near northeast Denver, announcing the launch this fall of a Montessori program at a higher-performing elementary school nearby.

In a letter to Gilpin Montessori School families, deputy superintendent Susana Cordova said the new Montessori program at Garden Place Elementary would run alongside the school’s traditional program. A similar setup exists at Lincoln Elementary School in the West Washington Park neighborhood.

Gilpin students who live in the area’s enrollment zone — a boundary that includes several schools in near northeast Denver — will be provided free bus transportation, with a stop at Gilpin.

Garden Place scored “green” — the second highest mark — on DPS’s most recent color-coded school performance framework. Gilpin scored in the red — the lowest category.

Current Gilpin students also will be given priority status at other DPS schools with Montessori programs — Monarch, Denison, Lincoln and Academia Ana Marie Sandoval. Seats can be hard to come by at at least some of those schools, however, and transportation may be a barrier to many families.

The district had little time to waste in putting together the option because DPS’s school choice window — when families fill out forms listing their top choices for the 2017-18 school year — opened last week and closes Jan. 31.

The letter to parents Friday did not come as a surprise. At a meeting at Gilpin earlier this week, three DPS board members pledged to push the district to think about making another Montessori option available in the area.

The school board unanimously voted Dec. 15 to close Gilpin and two other low-performing elementary schools under a new district policy known as the School Performance Compact.

Since then, however, Gilpin parents and teachers have mobilized to try to save the school. Citing emails obtained through open records request, they have questioned whether Gilpin’s score on a recent quality review was “willfully altered” to meet the criteria for closure because the district wanted to repurpose the building for office space or to house a charter school.

District officials disputed that, saying the review was conducted by an independent party and that no decisions have been made about the building. The board members who attended the meeting defended the new school closure policy. None indicated they would heed Gilpin supporters’ put the issue of potentially reversing the closure vote on the board’s Thursday meeting agenda.

Building Better Schools

Elizabeth Gore won a surprise victory in the IPS board race. Now everyone is wondering what to expect.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Elizabeth Gore is one of three new board members.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board is starting the new term with a few unknown faces but perhaps the biggest mystery is a returning player.

After a bruising fight for control of the board, candidates aligned with the current administration won in a landslide, with one exception: Elizabeth Gore beat incumbent Sam Odle. But why she won — and whether she will stand against a board that is reshaping the district — is uncertain.

Gore is well known in the community, and she previously served on the board. But she lost her seat in 2012, when pro-reform advocates captured control. Even Gore is uncertain what was different this time around.

“I’d like to think, ‘What was that magic thing I did?’ ” Gore said. “But my way of doing things is the same. … My message is always the same.”

The election landscape, however, was a bit different. For the first time in recent years, candidates who have pushed for aggressive change — from partnering with charter schools to giving principals more independence — faced organized opposition in the battle for control of the board. A loose network of critics formed OurIPS, a grassroots group that partnered with Concerned Clergy to endorse and campaign for a slate of challengers.

Despite those efforts, every one of the candidates OurIPS backed lost on Election Day.

Instead, pro-reform candidates won an almost complete victory with the support of groups such as Stand for Children Indiana. A parent-organizing group that wages well-financed campaigns for its slate of candidates, Stand only suffered one loss in November, Odle’s defeat by Gore.

Gore, however, isn’t easily placed in the sides that were drawn in the race. Although she is sometimes critical of the administration, she was not endorsed by OurIPS and she did not run an explicitly ideological campaign. She raised about $1,200 during the race, a fraction of $25,626 Odle had raised in October.

Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand, said voters showed their strong support for changes in the district by electing most of the candidates the group endorsed. But he wasn’t sure what lessons to draw from Gore’s victory.

“I take at the end of the day those ballots being counted on Election Day to be a message,” he said. “But what that message is, I don’t know.”

It is also possible that Odle, a retired healthcare executive, was a particularly weak candidate. He faced criticism ahead of the election for serving as a board member for ITT Educational Services, a for-profit college that filed for bankruptcy last month following severe federal sanctions.

For Chrissy Smith, an IPS parent and active member of OurIPS, Gore’s victory is encouraging because it shows even people without much money can win. If critics of the administration are able to field candidates who are better known and respected in the community, she said, they have a stronger chance of winning future elections.

Smith is holding out hope that as a board member, Gore will be a dissenting voice who opposes the administration’s efforts to create innovation schools. Innovation schools, which are considered part of IPS but are managed by outside partners, are one of the most controversial pieces of the board’s agenda.

Gore shares some concern over the rapid expansion of innovation schools. But she does not see herself as an adversarial force on the board.

“I think when coming on the board, I have the thought process of agreeing to disagree,” Gore said. “Nobody agrees on everything all the time.”

OurIPS was defeated in the election, but the people who supported the group won’t be disappearing, Smith said. They are still in the early stages of planning but they aim to get more parents and community members involved.

For now, they want the school board to know that critics are still watching, Smith said. “They may have been voted in but they still have a responsibility to everyone in the district.”

Whether critics are able to sustain their movement and attract more people hinges in part on the outcomes of the district’s dramatic changes. Many of the innovation schools are designed to improve the district’s lowest-performing schools, but the administration does not yet have much evidence that its policies are improving test scores.

Board President Mary Ann Sullivan, who has been a strong advocate for changes in the district, said that if their work starts to pay off, she expects opposition to diminish.

“The best case scenario is that we start seeing more of the fruits of our labors,” Sullivan said. “It’s hard to argue with success.”