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Charter Group Intends To Buy Three Indiana Public Schools Buildings With ‘$1 Law’

By Eric Weddle, IPB News | Published on in Education, Statewide News
Misty Ndiritu, Noble Education Initiative's Indiana State Director, talks during a public hearing on the charter applications for three schools under state takeover on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019.
Misty Ndiritu, Noble Education Initiative's Indiana State Director, talks during a public hearing on the charter applications for three schools under state takeover on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019.

The organization seeking charters for three Indianapolis schools on track to exit state takeover wants to use a state law to buy or annually lease the buildings for $1 each, according to its spokesperson.

The group, ReThink Forward Indiana, is acting on instructions from the State Board of Education to apply for charters to operate Emma Donnan Middle School, and Thomas Carr Howe and Emmerich Manual high schools. Earlier this year, the board approved the end to the schools’ intervention in June 2020 rather than directing the schools’ return to their former district, Indianapolis Public Schools.

The Florida-based for-profit Charter Schools USA operated the schools since the 2012-13 academic year. The state hired the company, also known CSUSA, eight years ago to turn around the three schools. The company is associated with ReThink Forward Indiana, a nonprofit board also based in Florida. If the charters are approved next month, the nonprofit Noble Education initiative, a CSUSA partner, would operate the schools and run instruction.

READ MORE: IPS Ends Deal With Charter Schools USA, Creating Uncertainty For Takeover Schools

Last week IPS Superintendent Aleeisa Johnson said outstanding bonds on the buildings could prevent their use by a charter operator. Johnson also moved to end a partnership with CSUSA that could result in Emma Donnan Middle School coming back to the district.

ReThink Forward Indiana spokesperson says the law is clear that IPS has no say over the buildings’ futures.

“When the state board exercises authority to direct turnaround schools to seek a charter, it invokes the state charter law that allows these schools to access the current building they are in for $1 either through purchase or lease,” Colleen Reynolds wrote in an email.

Reynolds says no agreement is needed between ReThink Forward and IPS for the schools to operate in 2020-21 as charter schools if the applications are approved later this month.

Concerns of IPS were not discussed during a public hearing Monday night about the charter applications to operate Donnan, Howe and Manual.

Dozens of students, parents, and teachers voiced their support for three Indianapolis schools to become charter schools after they exit state takeover status next year.

Some cried as they professed a passion for the schools. Others told stories about educators changing their lives.

Fears about alternatives also underlined their comments. If charters are not approved, some said, Indianapolis Public Schools could take control and close one or more of the buildings.

“I don’t trust IPS to keep Manual open,” said Alice Glover, the Manual Alumni Association president. “They could shut it in a heartbeat.”

Around 50 people spoke in favor of the charters. A handful of people who opposed the charters, including two top IPS staffers, signed up to speak but opted to submit comments by email instead.

The Indiana Charter School Board will vote whether to approve the applications at a public meeting Dec. 13.

Last week, IPS Superintendent Aleeisa Johnson moved to end a partnership with CSUSA that could result in Emma Donnan Middle School coming back to the district. But during the hearing, ReThink Forward and NEI leaders did not address that and focused how they will operate the three schools as charters.

Under the proposal, the eastside Howe would add seven grades and expand to a K-12 school and more than double enrollment to 970 students by 2021-2022. Currently, the school is grades 7-12 with around 600 students.

Emma Donnan, as a K-8 school, would more than double its current enrollment of around 300 students to 657 by 2022-23. Donnan students could then enroll at the nearby Manual High School. It would remain a 9-12 school, according to the application, but increase enrollment by about 200 students to 812 students.

“Allowing us to have two feeder systems within the Indianapolis community,” said Misty Ndiritu, NEI Indiana state director. “We feel we are poised to continue serving the learning communities we are already serving. As we built a strong foundation based on the historical legacy of these schools.”

The state accountability grades for Emma Donnan and Manual have improved under the takeover from F to C on the state’s A-F scale.

However, some policymakers recently voiced concern with Manual after a Chalkbeat Indiana investigation found a high number of students left the school to be homeschooled. That may have bolstered the school’s graduation rate, because  students leaving for homeschool are not counted against a school’s graduation rate, like a dropout student would be.

That issue was not addressed during the hearing. An NEI official did tease unreleased achievement data about Howe, currently the state’s longest failing school. When the state’s new A-F grades are released soon, the official said, Howe will no longer be rated F.

Ahmed Young, IPS chief of external affairs and general counsel, was one of two district staffers who initially signed up to speak in opposition of the charters Monday. Instead, Young opted to email his comments to the Indiana Charter Board, who are collecting input through Nov. 27.

“It’s clear that IPS and countless community members wish for there to be local control of the buildings governed by the locally elected IPS Board of School Commissioners and decide not to leave the heart of the City of Indianapolis with significant debt payments,” Young wrote in the comments, alluding to unpaid bonds on the three buildings.

Young said IPS has shown a willingness to partner with school operators to run schools and is open to find an operator for the three schools.

“However, that will not be the case in regard to Manual, Howe, and Emma Donnan with the current operators at this time,” he wrote.”

The Indiana State Board of Education meets Dec. 4 and is expected to discuss a request by IPS to return Emma Donnan Middle School.

Contact WFYI education reporter Eric Weddle at eweddle@wfyi.org or call (317) 614-0470. Follow on Twitter: @ericweddle.