Indianapolis Public Schools’ new superintendent found himself on the defensive this morning, explaining to skeptical Democrats and union leaders his support for a bill allowing charter school partnerships in IPS schools.

House Bill 1321 would allow IPS to enter into partnerships with charter school operators or school management organizations.

Under the bill, IPS can collaborate with an outside group in two ways. A charter school can operate independently within an IPS school building. Or IPS can hire an outside group to run an IPS school, creating what the bill calls an “innovation school” and giving it greater freedoms than other district schools.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he needed the flexibility offered by the bill to execute strategies to improve some schools.

But the bill, which applies only to IPS, contains a provision that brought intense opposition from Indiana’s two statewide teachers unions — an outright prohibition of union bargaining for employees who work at “innovation schools” run under contract with the district. That provision was the main focus of those who spoke against the bill at today’s House Education Committee meeting.

Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point, blasted what she said was the bill’s “complete and utter disrespect” for teachers.

“You’re setting yourself up to lose a lot of good teachers,” she told Ferebee.

Gail Zaheralis, of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said the bill was imbued with anti-union sentiment.

“The implication throughout this bill is that bargaining salary and wages, and discussing with teachers matters of best practices, are hindering these schools,” she said. “That what’s offensive.”

IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee speaks to the House Education Committee. (Scott Elliott)
IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee speaks to the House Education Committee. (Scott Elliott)

Under the bill, IPS can enter into a contract with a charter school or other independent group to run a charter school within an IPS building and use IPS services, such as buses or meals. Or the district can contract with an outside group to run one of its own schools that has been rated a D or F for three years. In both cases, teachers and other workers may be employed by the outside group, with different pay scales and benefit offerings than the rest of the district. The outside group also can make major changes at the school, such as instituting a longer school day or school year, and choose to hire former IPS employees or not.

In return, the district can count the test scores from those schools in its cumulative averages and and is afforded a degree of control over where some charter schools locate and how they operate. Embracing charter schools in this way is a major departure from the district’s posture under Ferebee’s predecessor, Eugene White. In the past, the district sought to aggressively compete with charters and often resisted charter requests to use IPS buildings.

But in the hearing, Ferebee argued the bill was necessary to keep IPS from closing neighborhood schools, which he said were threatened by the district’s financial woes. An “oversaturation” of charter schools in the city “really puts us in danger of losing our neighborhood concept,” Ferebee said.

“We have the risk of having to close our neighborhood schools,” he said.

Last spring, the district announced it had a multi-million dollar deficit and used reserve funds to meet its budget this school year. Peggy Hinckley, then serving as interim superintendent, predicted IPS would have to close as many as 10 schools to make its spending match its income. IPS is likely to be reluctant to close higher performing magnet schools over mostly low-scoring neighborhood schools.

Upon his arrival from North Carolina in September, Ferebee said he was struck by a large construction project for the new Phalen Leadership Academy charter school on North Illinois Street, less than two miles from an IPS elementary school and another charter school. At the same time IPS had schools with excess space, Phalen was spending millions to convert a warehouse into a school.

“It was really a head scratcher to me,” he said.

Ferebee said he also noticed a pattern in IPS school performance: charter-like local control of schools within the district correlated with better test scores.

“Many of the most high performing schools in our district are our schools with the greatest autonomy over their instructional programs: our magnet programs,” he said.

That led him to create an “innovation network” of a three schools, giving the principal and teachers at those schools more control over how they operate.

“They were doing things really differently,” Ferebee said.

Two of those schools follow a program known as Project Restore developed by two former IPS School 99 teachers. Ferebee cited that program as a potential internal partner, managing IPS schools under a contract as prescribed in House Bill 1321. The Project Restore schools, he said, are interested in exploring a longer school day, longer school year and changes to the way teachers are compensated.

“They don’t have those opportunities now,” he said.

That’s because changing compensation or adding working days and hours for teachers would require negotiations with IPS’ teachers union.

Teachers should not be prohibited from bargaining with IPS over how they would be affected by those changes, union advocates said. Sally Sloan of the Indiana Federation of Teachers noted that state law makes employee bargaining an option for all of Indiana’s autonomous charter schools.

“I can’t see why these people shouldn’t have the same opportunity,” she said.

While the bill was passed by the education committee 9-4, heading next for a full House vote expected next week, key supporters expressed a willingness to consider Sloan’s proposal as an amendment, giving teachers the option of bargaining collectively.

“I wouldn’t have heartburn if it was similar to charter schools,” Ferebee said.

Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth shared Ferebee’s view, as did the bill’s author, Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office worked with IPS and Behning to create the bill.

“We’d be comfortable with it being consistent with charter school law,” Kloth said.

But that may not be enough to win support of the unions, or the Democrats. ISTA officials said they would continue to advocate for the teachers at any school managed by special management team under the bill to remain IPS employees and members of the IPS union.

ISTA lobbyist John O’Neil bristled at what he called “euphemisms” in the bill, such as the term “innovation schools,” which is the name for those run by “special management teams” from outside groups under contract with IPS.

In effect, he said, the bill creates a local complement to state takeover, a process that led to outside management of four IPS schools in 2012. It means veteran teachers can be fired and their replacements paid less so for-profit companies can make money, he said.

“Special management teams are outside companies that would manage these schools,” he said “‘Innovation schools’ is simply another name for takeover.”