Executive session is to train new school board members

The Dec. 6 executive session of the Monroe County Community School Corp. board is to provide training for board members-elect Martha Street and Kelly Smith, according to member Sue Wanzer.

That’s a legitimate reason for a closed meeting under the Indiana Open Door Law, which allows executive sessions “to train school board members with an outside consultant about the performance of the role of the members as public officials.”

Wanzer said the board will meet with a trainer from the Indiana School Boards Association, who will help get Street and Smith up to speed on what’s involved in serving on a school board. They were elected to the board in November and take office in January. Keith Klein joined the board a year ago and arguably also qualifies as a new member due for training.

School Matters questioned the closed meeting last week in light of concern about secrecy in the early stages of a search for a new MCCSC superintendent.

There’s no question that it’s legal for the board to have an executive session for the training of new members. Whether the entire board needs to be present for such training is another matter. Also, there’s nothing that says the meeting has to be closed – and one could argue that the community would also benefit from hearing the ISBA’s take on the proper role of board members.

Daniels’ education agenda: Is thoughtful debate too much to ask?

In case you missed it, Gov. Mitch Daniels laid out his ideas for reforming Indiana’s K-12 education system earlier this month in a guest column in the Indianapolis Star.

The list goes like this:

— Base teachers’ pay and job tenure on how well their students learn.
— Free schools from unnecessary state rules and teacher contract restrictions.
— Expand parent choice and allow more charter schools.
— Encourage students to finish high school early and pay them if they do.

These are interesting ideas, but Daniels presents them with such bombast that he seems to be begging for a fight, not a discussion.

Making the case for merit pay, he writes: “If there is one fact that every expert and all the data confirm, it is that the single most important predictor of a child’s academic success is the quality of the teachers he or she encounters.”

To quote just one expert who disagrees, the education historian Diane Ravitch: “The single most reliable predictor of test scores is poverty, and poverty, in turn, is correlated to student attendance, to family support, and to the school’s resources.”

That’s not to say that poverty should be an excuse for a lack of learning, or that teachers aren’t important. But ignoring such an important factor doesn’t contribute to honest debate — nor does glossing over the difficulty of being able to identify Continue reading

MCCSC closed meetings: How much ‘training’ does a board need?

‘Tis the season to be thankful, so let’s start by saying the Monroe County Community School Corp. did a good job of involving the public when it searched for a new superintendent in 2008.

The board got public input on what qualities to look for in a school leader. When the search was down to three finalists, the board made their names public and had all three take part in community forums. It was a good process with a good outcome: the appointment of J.T. Coopman as superintendent.

Now Coopman is retiring and the process starts again. And some board members are bristling at suggestions that the early stages should be more open – and comply with the Indiana Open Door Law.

After School Matters questioned plans for a closed-door executive session on Tuesday, MCCSC board member Valerie Merriam posted to the Support Our Schools community forum that “the board does, indeed, know what can and cannot be discussed during executive session” and insisted concern about an illegal meeting was “the misconception of the blogger.”

“I want to assure everybody that nothing was discussed at the executive committee meeting that shouldn’t have been discussed,” Merriam said at Tuesday night’s public school board meeting, a few hours after the closed meeting.

Board member Jim Muehling said people who are worried about transparency should “seek help, because they are clueless.” Continue reading

School accountability results send mixed messages

Whatever you may think about state and federal school accountability regimes, you have to feel good for Highland Park and Templeton elementary schools.

The Bloomington schools, where 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, got a double dose of good news with the accountability data released today by the Indiana Department of Education. They both 1) made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act; and 2) received an exemplary rating, the highest possible, under Indiana’s Public Law 221 system.

Hats off, also, to Fairview Elementary School, which came close to making AYP despite having by far the highest concentration of poverty of any school in Monroe County – more than 90 percent of its students qualify by family income for free or reduced-price lunches.

And to the Monroe County Community School Corp., which made AYP as a corporation for the first time since 2006.

That said, the state’s release of both the federal and state accountability data at the same time makes for confusing results.

The state and federal accountability systems use such different methodologies that it’s possible for a school to be rated as great by one and not so good by the other. Continue reading

MCCSC closed-door meeting would be contrary to Open Door Law

The Monroe County Community School Corp. board plans to hold a closed-door meeting next Tuesday to discuss the next steps for hiring a superintendent, according to the Bloomington Herald-Times.

That would almost certainly be against the law. There is no provision in the Indiana Open Door Law that allows secret executive sessions to discuss how to conduct a superintendent search.

The public notice for the executive session says the board will meet to “receive information about prospective employees,” i.e., candidates to take the place of Superintendent J.T. Coopman, who is retiring at the end of the year. If that’s all the board does, it would be OK to meet in secret.

But MCCSC board member Valerie Merriam told the H-T that the board intends “to decide what kind of committee to go with this time, whether that involves lots of community members or we go with a professional search (firm) … I think all those things will be hammered out next Tuesday.”

Steve Key, executive director and general counsel with the Hoosier State Press Association, who knows the Open Door Law as well as anyone, told School Matters that he can’t think of an exception that would allow discussing the process of a superintendent search in a closed-door meeting.

Could the school board close the meeting if, along with other business, it might receive information about superintendent candidates? No, it can’t. Continue reading

The door keeps revolving on the MCCSC superintendency

There’s no way to put a positive spin on the news that J.T. Coopman is retiring at the end of December as superintendent of the Monroe County Community School Corp.

It means the MCCSC school board will be naming its fifth superintendent in five years – probably an interim superintendent to fill in while the board searches for a longer-term leader. Potential candidates would have to think twice about jumping to such an unstable situation.

Coopman, 59, told the Bloomington Herald-Times (subscription required) he was “absolutely worn out” after a stressful period that included his wife’s ongoing battle with cancer, $5.8 million in MCCSC budget cuts and a hurried funding referendum for the district.

“There’s only so many fights in a dog. And this old dog doesn’t have many fights left,” he said.

Was he also exhausted by a school board that was overly involved in every decision? He told the H-T that board members’ hearts were in the right place, but “I can’t say we always are on the same page.” Continue reading

Election is over, and it’s payback time

The week after an election is probably a good time to recall the immortal words of Henry Adams, the American historian and diarist: “Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.”

In other words, if you backed the wrong side last week, get ready to duck.

Take a look at the money disbursed this election season by the Indiana Political Action Committee for Education, the political arm of the Indiana State Teachers Association. It spent close to $1 million by Oct. 9, most of it in contributions of as much as $50,000 to Democratic legislative candidates.

But most of those candidates lost. Republicans won control of the Indiana House by a 59-41 margin. In the state Senate, the margin is so lopsided that the handful of Democrats don’t even need to show up for Republicans to do business.

Conveniently enough, any hypothetical payback of the ISTA would align nicely with the Republican agenda of weakening the ability of teachers’ unions to block reforms such as merit pay and the gutting of tenure protections. Continue reading

State gets ready for take-over of low-performing schools

Twenty-three Indiana schools could be facing take-over by private management companies or other school turnaround agents under a rule that the State Board of Education is set to adopt Dec. 1.

That sounds like strong medicine, and it has stirred up some controversy in Indiana education circles. But Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett says it’s one of the prescriptions that the state legislature included in Indiana’s school accountability law, known as Public Law 221.

The law, passed in 1999, says an option for persistently low-achieving schools is “assigning a special management team to operate all or part of the school.” Other options include closing the schools and merging them with other schools, a DOE memo explains.

Schools can be considered for take-over if they have been in the lowest category of achievement and improvement – until recently called called academic probation – for six consecutive years.

“The state can no longer afford to turn a blind eye,” Bennett said in a message to school employees. “Instead, the state owes it to the students to try to turn around these schools. Continue reading

MCCSC school referendum bucks the anti-tax tide

Voters in the Monroe County Community School Corp. district sent a strong message of support for public education in Tuesday’s election. They voted 61 percent to 39 percent to raise property taxes in order to provide stable school funding for the next six years.

This is remarkable, given the anti-tax and anti-government storm that was blowing through Indiana.

Similar school-funding referenda were voted down in nine of the 13 Indiana districts that tried them, according to the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. And a statewide ballot initiative to enshrine restrictive property-tax caps in the state constitution passed by more than a 2-to-1 margin.

It would be easy to conclude Bloomington and Monroe County make up an island of enlightened support for education in a red sea of taxophobia. But remember that, in 1999, MCCSC voters overwhelmingly rejected a school-funding referendum.

One difference this time was an aggressive and organized campaign to make the case for the tax increase, enlist supporters and get them to the polls. MCCSC Superintendent J.T. Coopman spoke about the referendum to every group that would listen. Volunteers canvassed neighborhoods, put out yard signs and made get-out-the-vote phone calls, just like in any political campaign.

They effectively delivered the message that the referendum was about “needs,” not “wants.” Continue reading