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IPS developing plan for new charter compact law

Indianapolis Public Schools has started the tricky work of navigating how it might partner with charter school groups to run some of its schools.

It’s uncharted territory, with lots of unanswered questions like how school accountability would work, teachers would be paid and students would learn differently. Those and other questions stymied any thought of trying a new partnership this school year. But IPS could try to use a new law encouraging the district to pair up with charter schools for 2015-16.

In fact, the IPS school board has begun discussion of a district-wide policy for working with charter school groups or other outsiders who want to try their hand at running a district school.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and board members said they are open to trying a charter school or other partnership. A school board committee met Wednesday to talk through how the district might prepare for issues that could arise should the board decide to give it a try.

“We do have a number of people that have expressed interest,” Ferebee said. “The first person to jump in the pool is one we’ll go slow with to make sure we’ve thought through all the details. It would likely be someone that we have a relationship with, but it could be someone totally new. We don’t know.”

Ferebee, who joined IPS last September, worked with legislators to draft the bill this spring giving IPS the ability to hand over empty buildings for charter schools to use, or to hire other outsiders to manage an school.

“Very early on it was made very clear to me from our governance team that were was an interest in promoting autonomy,” Ferebee said. “To move where we want to be financially, we will have to look at how we utilize our facilities.”

Accountability for potential partner schools is a key question. The district already has four schools that were taken over by the state and handed off to be run independent of IPS by outside by charter school organizations, and there has been considerable debate before the Indiana State Board of Education about whether that approach is working. The takeover schools have seen modest test score gains over two years and relations with IPS, at times, have been strained.

Two other low-performing IPS schools were assigned “lead partners,” organizations that don’t run the schools but offer support and advice to the principals and staff.

IPS would only want outside partners that it was confident would improve its schools, Ferebee said.

“We would be looking for individuals with a proven track for turnaround,” he said.

Teacher compensation, seniority and hiring is another area of concern for board members.

For example, some worried it could create problems if teachers were paid much more or much less by an outside group compared with other IPS teachers.

Ferebee told board members that the district could decide how much a group could deviate from the district’s pay scale.

“We could give a provider complete autonomy and flexibility, or we could set guidelines,” Ferebee said.

The district has begun negotiations on a new contract with its teachers union. The new law allowing partnerships permits the outside groups running IPS schools to hire teachers separately under their own wage scale, separate from the seniority-based pay guidelines the district’s union contract specifies.

The committee meets monthly. The next meeting is Sept. 10.