Who Is In Charge

Tony Bennett guilty of ethics charge for campaign work

PHOTO: Photo by Kyle Stokes courtesy of StateImpact Indiana

Former Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett was found guilty of violating an ethics law by a state panel today and agreed to pay a $5,000 fine as part of a settlement.

Bennett and his Indiana Department of Education employees spent his work time and used office computers and telephones for the campaign, Inspector General David Thomas found. Last September, the Associated Press reported it had obtained documents through public records requests that showed two Republican donor lists were stored on education department office computers and that he and his staff discussed 2012 campaign details via email. Bennett’s calendar also listed what appeared to be campaign phone call appointments.

Those allegations grew out of a larger accusation: that Bennett had intentionally manipulated the state’s A to F grading system to benefit a wealthy ally who had contributed to his political campaign in the past. On that score, the Indiana Ethics Commission found no wrongdoing when it adopted Thomas’ report.

Afterward, Bennett’s lawyer declared the nearly year-long ordeal over, describing his client’s actions as an easily correctable oversight but a violation nonetheless.

“While there were violations, not every violation of the rule is serious,” attorney Larry Mackey said. “Dr. Bennett, as a political officeholder, had every right to engage in political activity unlike state employees. But he has to follow the rules and the rules are, write a policy. He did not write that policy. If he had written that policy we would not be here right now and there would not be any violations.”

But when it came to A to F grades, Thomas’s report relied almost entirely on a report commissioned by the Indiana legislature that last fall said the grade change raising Christel House charter school from a C to an A was “plausible.”

Written by John Grew and William Sheldrake of the Indiana-based company Policy Analytics, the legislative report found that the questions raised about Christel House led education department staff to discover a programming error that depressed grades for 165 schools and to reconsider the interpretation for how to grade about a dozen schools with unusual grade configurations. The change affected all those schools, not just Christel House.

But that report stopped short of examining the motivations of Bennett and his staff with regard to Christel House. The authors did not address why email conversations in September 2012 focused so heavily on Christel House or explore the wide range of options proposed to raise its grade before it was discovered that the technical correction and rule interpretation change raised the school to an A.

“Any further motivations underlying these actions are beyond the scope and documentation of this report,” Grew and Sheldrake wrote.

Bennett was not at the hearing today, Mackey said, because he was on a family vacation. Mackey said the end of the ethics investigation should close the case entirely.

He pointed out that Bennett was among those who called for the ethics investigation that ended with today’s fine.

“He didn’t like the answer, to some extent, but he accepted it,” Mackey said.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: