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6th graders working on Writing skills.

6th graders working on Writing skills.

Alan Petersime

Losing top principals presents a challenge for IPS

Deciding to leave School 90 was tough for Mark Pugh, the principal who for the last seven years led a stunning turnaround that made the it one of the best-scoring high poverty schools in Indiana.

But he started looking for another job after receiving an odd reward for the success he’s had at the school: a deep pay cut.

The Indianapolis Public School board last summer ordered salary reductions — it cost Pugh $14,000 — for 11 elementary school principals. Less than a year later, School 90 will have to figure out how to keep its streak of success going without him.

“It’s bittersweet for me to be leaving,” he said. “It’s kind of like sending your kid off to college. I hope whoever comes in next will value the school as much as I valued it and value the staff as much as I valued them.”

With Pugh’s departure, Indianapolis Public Schools will now have to find new leadership for School 90, a school with better test scores than any other elementary school that draws students mostly from a high-poverty neighborhood. The school was too small to have an assistant principal and there is no obivious successor.

And at it’s best scoring middle school the story went much the same way.

Harshman Middle School, a math and science magnet, earlier this spring lost its principal and a vice principal that many expected would some day take over leading the school.

At a time when Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has begun creating a new hiring process with a goal of choosing strong principals, the departure of three well-regarded school leaders isn’t making his job any easier.

Pay freezes and tight budgets have been prompting top IPS employees at all levels to look elsewhere for several years.

“There is no question there is a problem with retaining all talent in the district,” board member Caitlin Hannon said.

But in Pugh’s case, the pay cut, a 15 percent reduction in his salary from $94,000 to $80,000, went well beyond the district’s widespread problem of not keeping up with inflation.

“The reduction in pay definitely prompted me to look at it a little more seriously,” he said.

When Pugh took over at School 90, its state rating was a D and a little over half the students passed ISTEP.

It now has been rated an A for five consecutive years, including twice being honored by the Indiana Department of Education for ranking among the state’s best schools for test score growth, the only school to make the list more than once in that period.

Also known as Ernie Pyle Elementary School, School 90 serves 360 students in K to 6. It was given a magnet theme two years ago but basically remains a neighborhood school, serving mostly children who live nearby on the Northwest side. It follows the Paideia curriculum, based on a Greek-inspired classical education, as its magnet program.

The student body is nearly all high poverty — 95 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. It has a huge number of students learning English as a second language at 28 percent. Special education enrollment also exceeds the districtwide average.

Those are tough challenges, but Pugh’s approach as principal focused on enforcing tough, consistent discipline and building an elite teaching team. The result: four straight years of ISTEP gains.

With 84 percent passing last year, School 90 trailed only the Sidener Gifted Academy and the Center for Inquiry at School 84, two of the district’s most sought after magnet schools, as the best scoring schools in IPS. The highest scoring non-magnet school serving a neighborhood last year was School 39, which was 20 points behind School 90 with a passing rate of 64 percent.

How did that track record earn Pugh a $14,000 pay cut? In part, the board’s decision was based on faulty information.

Believing IPS was facing a $30 million deficit, interim Superintendent Peggy Hinckley discovered an oddity in principal pay while searching for cost savings in the district’s budget. Most elementary school principals were on 10-month contracts. But Hinckley found 11 who were paid for 12 months.

Her research showed there had apparently been a mistake. Most of those who saw pay cuts had formerly worked in high schools on 12-month contracts that were mistakenly not adjusted when they changed jobs, Hinckley said at the time. While acknowledging it created an awkward and financially painful situation for those affected, Hinckley recommended adjusting Pugh and the others to 10 months, because it would help the district save money and standardize the work year for elementary school principals.

After Ferebee took over in September, IPS soon found its financial situation was much different than everyone thought.

In March Ferbee made a stunning announcement: the reported deficit didn’t exist, he said. IPS actually had a small surplus last year. The district had been systematically overestimating its expenses, Ferebee said.

That revelation has prompted widespread rethinking of pay issues.

Teachers, many of whom have not had a raise in five years, are clamoring for a pay hike as negotiations on a new contract begin in August with the district’s teachers union. The school board has also had discussions about taking the opportunity to completely rethink how teachers, principals and others are compensated. The board could start that process even before labor talks begin.

“We’ve never budgeted well and we haven’t budgeted our values,” Hannon said. “If we want to build a system where talent is the No. 1 thing we’re interested in, I think we are close to beginning that.”

One change Ferebee has already made was to boost pay for principals willing to take an assignment at one of 11 “priority” schools, or the most troubled buildings with flat or declining test scores. He said he hopes to restore the pay cuts that affected Pugh, but fixing priority schools came first.

“I’m really trying to turn the tide on things that occurred before I got here,” Ferebee said. “The way those reductions were made, we cannot just reverse all of those at one point in time.”

For Pugh, the pay cut put on the table for his family a long running idea of moving to Ohio, where they have relatives. Later this month, he expects to be named principal of a suburban elementary school there. He informed School 90 staff on Thursday that he would not be returning.

“I feel very privileged,” he said. “I have a great deal of pride in Ernie Pyle. I feel confident I’ve made an impact on kids’ lives.”

Will the next school leader be able to continue the momentum? That challenge is also facing Harshman.

As principal, Bob Guffin led a turnaround at Harshman with similar results as School 90 but on a quicker timetable. Harshman was rated an F in 2010 with just 33 percent of its students passing ISTEP. Two years later, it was rated a B after a 27-point jump in its passing rate.

Last year, with 73 percent passing ISTEP, it was the district’s top-scoring middle school by far, even when compared to middle school students who attend the district’s highly regarded magnet high schools, some of which serve grades 6 to 12. Broad Ripple High School’s middle school students ranked second on ISTEP but the school’s passing rate was more than 15 points behind at 56 percent.

Guffin left for another attractive job: he is now the executive director for the Indiana State Board of Education. Likewise, his assistant principal, Dana Altemeyer, took a job as communications coordinator for Lawrence Township schools.

A new principal selection process he’s begun to put in place will help assure all schools have good principals, Ferebee said. His approach includes school staff, parents and other stakeholders in the decision about who should lead a school.

At School 90, the top rate teachers Pugh assembled will help pick as its next leader the right person who can build on his success, Ferebee said.

“Those teachers are going to continue to do the work,” he said, “and help us select the right leader to be sure we don’t miss a beat.”