The Indiana State Board of Education has ruled that the authorization of Indiana Agriculture and Technology School may violate state law, calling into question the future of the charter school with a novel approach that blends online learning and visits to a working farm.
In a notice of violation, the board tells the school’s authorizer, Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson United School Corp., that it isn’t permitted to authorize a virtual charter school that operates beyond the district’s boundaries. It calls for the school district to respond to the notice by March 10.
“It is imperative that NHJ address this matter in a timely manner, as failure to do so may result in the revocation of NHJ’s authorizer status,” the notice says.
It says the school district may enter a corrective action plan under which Indiana Agriculture and Technology School no longer operates as a virtual school and ceases to operate beyond the boundaries of Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson, a 2,000-student district in Morgan and Johnson counties.
Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson Superintendent Timothy Edsell said district officials wanted to take time to review the notice before responding to questions. The chief academic officer at Indiana Agriculture and Technology School did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Indiana Agricultural and Technology School opened in the fall of 2018 and now enrolls about 200 students, according to the Indiana Department of Education.
Two virtual charter schools involved in a funding scandal – Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy – were also authorized by a school district, Daleville Community Schools. Daleville began authorizing the schools in 2011, apparently before authorizers were required to seek state approval.
But in 2018, when Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson sought a charter for Indiana Agriculture and Technology School, the State Board of Education ruled that state law prohibited districts from authorizing virtual charter schools. In response, school officials changed course and said Indiana Agriculture and Technology School would be a “brick-and-mortar” school with a blended learning program.
In 2019, the Indiana General Assembly changed the law to make clear that only Indiana colleges and universities and the Indiana Charter School Board could authorize virtual charter schools.
Last fall, the school applied for a charter school grant, touching off a review by the State Board of Education. Citing descriptions of the school’s instructional program from the Indiana Agriculture and Technology School handbook, the board concluded that a majority of its instruction was online and that it fit the definition of a virtual school – and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson couldn’t serve as its authorizer.
The decision comes just weeks after an investigation by the State Board of Accounts found that Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy overcharged the state by $68 million by inflating enrollment figures over eight years. The state is seeking to recover $85 million spent improperly with businesses that had ties to the two schools.
The founder and board president of Indiana Agriculture and Technology School, Allan Sutherlin, is referenced in the State Board of Accounts report as having been an Indiana Virtual School board member in 2016. A 2018 Chalkbeat Indiana article described Sutherlin as a “longtime political operative” who advised Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.