School board faces tough call on interim leadership proposal

The Monroe County Community School Corp. board is in a tough spot. It needs to decide – quickly – whether to accept or reject a proposal by the corporation’s 25-member instructional leadership team to serve together as interim leader of the district while the board searches for a new superintendent.

The alternative is to appoint an interim superintendent until a long-term successor is chosen for Superintendent J.T. Coopman, who will retire Dec. 31.

The school board will discuss the team leadership idea Tuesday in a closed executive session. The next regular public meeting at which it could vote on the decision is Dec. 14.

The MCCSC instructional team, consisting of principals and the directors of elementary and secondary education, made the case for its leadership proposal last week at a school board work session. The unity and enthusiasm shown by the group were remarkable – all 25 people spoke and all endorsed the proposal. Members attributed the idea and their shared sense of purpose to the Professional Learning Communities model that the MCCSC adopted under Coopman.

School board members said they fully support Professional Learning Communities, but several expressed skepticism about leadership by committee. If they reject the proposal, it may be a challenge to do so in a way that doesn’t appear to be a slap at the PLC process.

The Nov. 30 school board work session was recorded by Monroe County’s Community Access Television Services. It will be re-broadcast several times this week on local cable channel 14. It can also be viewed online at catstv.net. It makes for surprisingly compelling TV.

In fact, anyone with strong interest in local schools and about five hours to spare could pair the work session with Saturday’s Support Our Schools forum, also being shown by CATS. The forum included insightful comments by former MCCSC officials, current city and county officials, parents and community members on a wide range of issues related to local schools.

More executive sessions posted for MCCSC board

The Monroe County Community School Corp. board has scheduled not one, not two, but three closed executive sessions next week:

— Monday at 9 a.m. for new board members to be trained in their role as public officials by a trainer from the Indiana School Boards Association.
— Tuesday at 5 p.m. to receive information about or interview candidates for employment.
— Wednesday at 5 p.m. to consider a job performance evaluation of an employee.

The board will also have a work session at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the MCCSC Administration Building to discuss the process for selecting a superintendent to succeed J.T. Coopman, who is retiring at the end of this year. Work sessions are open to the public, but there’s typically no public comment.

At Tuesday’s executive session, the board will apparently “receive information about” options for temporary leadership until a superintendent is hired: i.e., whether to name an interim superintendent or to accept a proposal for an executive council of MCCSC administrators to take charge.

“There will be no vote (Tuesday) as it is illegal to vote in exec. meetings,” board president Jeannine Butler said by e-mail.

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.

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

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

School funding cuts lead to big classes

Dave Smith has 21 sixth-graders in the class he teaches at Bloomington’s Arlington Heights Elementary School – not a bad number. But add the 16 fifth-graders who are also in Smith’s class, and you’re looking at a lot of kids for one teacher.

Smith’s 37-student class is not exactly an outlier. More than a dozen Monroe County Community School Corp. elementary teachers have 33 or more students in their classrooms. Class sizes in the district ballooned when the school board eliminated teaching positions as part of $5.8 million in spending cuts.

MCCSC officials warn that more teacher reductions, and possibly even bigger classes, are likely if voters don’t approve the school-funding referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot.

The school board voted in February to set staffing levels at 22 students per teacher for kindergarten, 24 for grade 1, 25 for grades 2-3, and 30 for grades 4-6. But those numbers are just averages. Principals group students and assign teachers the best they can, but some classes inevitably will be bigger than average.

According to figures compiled by the superintendent’s office, here’ some of what you’ll find this year in Bloomington elementary schools:

— Arlington Heights, split classes (grades 5-6) with 37, 35 and 32 students
— Clear Creek, multi-age classes (grades 4-6) with 35, 33 and 32 students and a sixth-grade class with 35 Continue reading

Indiana announces Education Jobs Fund allocations

The Monroe County Community School Corp. will get almost $2 million in federal funds from the Education Jobs Fund program approved by Congress this month.

According to information posted by the Indiana Department of Education, the MCCSC’s allocation is $1,965,296. Richland-Bean Blossom Community Schools will get $508,224. The Bloomington Project School, a public charter school, will get $37,326.

While school officials are welcoming the money, it comes too late to reverse the job and program cuts that the MCCSC and many other districts made this year.

Gov. Mitch Daniels submitted Indiana’s application for $207 million in federal money on Friday, well ahead of the Sept. 9 deadline, Department of Education CFO Lance Rhodes said in a memo. State officials expect that school districts can start receiving their share of the money in November.

Schools will have until Sept. 30, 2012 to spend the funds. According to federal guidelines, they can be used to pay salaries and benefits for teachers and “other employees who provide school-level educational and related services,” including principals and assistant principals, instructional aides, school nurses, custodians and cafeteria workers. The money can’t be used for general administrative expenses, such as central office and school board operations.

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, in a letter Friday, urged superintendents Continue reading