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Union leaders and fellow board members questioned a plan for overhauling teacher pay proposed by board member Caitlin Hannon at Tuesday's meeting.

Union leaders and fellow board members questioned a plan for overhauling teacher pay proposed by board member Caitlin Hannon at Tuesday’s meeting.

Scott Elliott

IPS leaders face pushback on plan to overhaul teacher pay, promotion

A major overhaul of how Indianapolis Public Schools evaluates, pays, and promotes teachers hit a snag today when some board members, and the teachers union, expressed concerns about the district’s plan to hire consultants to do part of that work.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee first announced at a board retreat in late May that the district might spend $2.35 million to work with three groups over the next two years to help it roll out “Project Elevate,” an initiative to boost teaching in Indianapolis.

The district wants private funders to cover much of the costs, but Ferebee asked the school board to allocate $274,000 in public funds to kick off the work this summer.

That request encountered some opposition at Tuesday’s board’s meeting.

IPS teachers union president Rhondalyn Cornett and some board members said they were uncomfortable with the fact that IPS chose the organizations it wants to work with before putting out an open call for vendors. They argued that a public bid process of the type that the district typically uses when hiring outside vendors would ensure that IPS is fully transparent — and gets the best deal.

“I would have liked a more transparent process in terms of vetting people that we are giving millions of dollars to,” board member Gayle Cosby said. “I need to point out that a couple weeks ago I submitted an email to the entire board suggesting we … give other vendors a chance.”

The plans for Project Elevate — which would cause changes at up to two dozen schools by 2016 — call for IPS to contract with three nonprofits: IUPUI, Education Resource Strategies, and Public Impact.

Public Impact, based out of North Carolina, would help IPS identify high-performing teachers so that they can be paid to extend their reach, according to the plans. The group has played a role in local education policy in the past, issuing a scathing review of IPS’s internal operations in 2011 as part of a collaboration with The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis advocacy group.

Boston-based Education Resource Strategies would work with the district to map out existing resources and come up with a plan to reallocate dollars from the central office to the classroom. Board member Caitlin Hannon said the work is necessary if IPS wants to give teachers pay raises.

But the teachers union argued Hannon’s position as executive director of TeachPlus, a group that has worked with Education Resource Strategies, is a conflict of interest. Hannon, who has worked with district officials to shepherd the Project Elevate plan through to the board, recently worked with Education Resource Strategies on an event that brought 100 IPS teachers together to discuss pay structure issues.

“It makes me suspicious of the reason why this company was selected,” Cornett said at the meeting. She said the relationship between Hannon and ERS suggested that the board’s “toes are getting very close” to ethical lines.

Noting that no contracts are yet in place, Hannon said she would support sending out a request for proposals for the work that was initially proposed for ERS and Public Impact.

“If there are concerns about partners, we could do an RFP for phase two and phase three,” she said. “That’s certainly an option.”

After the meeting, Hannon emphasized that TeachPlus receives no benefit, financial or otherwise, from IPS contracting with the two organizations.

“I don’t have any financial relationship with ERS and I would not benefit directly or indirectly from their work,” she said. “My hope is simply that their work would benefit teachers and students, which is what excites me most about Elevate: the opportunity to focus our resources where they matter the most.”

Ferebee said he was surprised by board members’ concerns with the Project Elevate contractors. He said he appreciated the desire for transparency but emphasized that the district must start tackling its pay structure now if it is to prepare for formal contract talks with the teachers union, set to begin Aug. 1.

“You’d like to do it soon rather than later, but I understand the board’s perspective on making sure that you explore all options,” Ferebee said. Still, he added, “If we don’t get a provider before August first, we’re still going to go into the negotiation process.”

At the very least, Ferebee urged, the board should at its next meeting sign off on hiring IUPUI to draw up a new teacher assessment tool to be used in evaluations.

“It is so important that we address our performance management,” said Ferebee, who noted that IUPUI has worked successfully with the district in the past. “We’ve gotten feedback that teachers are not receiving proper feedback from administrators as it relates to evaluations and observations. We know that compensation is tied to our evaluation instrument.”

Board member Diane Arnold said it would be a mistake to approve only a “fragment” of Project Elevate, rather than the whole plan. “It’s imperative we begin to move on this,” she said. “What hasn’t worked in the past needs to be changed.”

That argument did not resonate with Cosby.

“Time is of the essence, but teachers have waited to get a raise,” she said to applause from the audience. “I’m sure they would rather get it right than rush it and get it wrong.”