Township school board races

Washington Township candidates aim to help schools adapt to change

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Washington Township teachers meet for IB training last year.

This is one of 10 school board races in Marion County. Check back with Chalkbeat Indiana throughout the week for more information on the other candidates

 

District snapshot

Washington Township achieved a milestone at the beginning of this school year: it became the first district in Indiana to offer International Baccalaureate curriculum to all its students, and just the sixth worldwide.

Like other township school districts in Marion County, Washington Township has also seen an increase in the number of poor families it serves, as well as an increase in students learning English as a second language. Updating curriculum and instruction to offer a more rigorous and internationally minded education to students was one way Superintendent Nikki Woodson said the district was adapting to its changing community.

Donald Kite and William Turner, who have both previously served on the school board, are running for their seats unopposed.

Candidates in this race discussed the issues recently on Amos Brown’s radio show.

Key school district data

  • Enrollment: 11,161 students
  • Ethnicity: 39 percent black, 32.8 percent white, 16.6 percent hispanic
  • Poverty: 59.3 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch
  • ISTEP math and English passing rate 2014: 71.1 percent
  • 2012-13 graduation rate (most recent available): 81.5 percent

Candidates

  • Donald Bradley Kite Sr., attorney at Wuertz Law Office LLC in Indianapolis, running for re-election to District 2.
  • William D Turner Jr., 54, Director, Education & Development Allison Transmission Inc., running for re-election to District 1.

Why did you choose to run for the school board?

Kite: I am proud of having been a part of Washington Township for many years, including serving on the school board for the last eight-plus years, and I would very much like to continue to be a part of the decision-making process regarding what I believe is our township’s bright future. My wife and I initially chose Washington Township because of the township’s many strengths including its diversity, its strong academics and its continued focus on the future. While my children are now grown, I very much wish to remain a part of one of the very best school districts in the state of Indiana. I am a committed parent, grandparent and community member who genuinely enjoys working with our township’s different constituencies, including the approximately 80 to 85 percent of township residents who do not currently have children in our schools, and with our township’s talented faculty, staff and administrators. I continue to believe that we are stronger when we work in partnership and I genuinely care about the entire township. I will continue to be objective and to work hard as a member of the board where consensus is important, but where board members have a responsibility to raise and consider different views.

Turner: I am running for re-election because I believe as a board and district we are starting to see improvements in areas of concern. Some of the initiatives that the district has put in place, such as the IB program for all schools, is starting to change the way that our students learn. I would like to be re-elected so that we can continue to help all of our students within our district to achieve at their highest level.

What issues will you focus on?

Kite: As a board member I have consistently focused on and advocated making decisions where the board’s first and foremost consideration is doing what is best for our 11,000-plus students. As a district, we are extremely proud of having recently been authorized as one of the United States’ only K-12 International Baccalaureate school districts, the authorization being the culmination of substantial efforts over a number of years by many fine educators. When I am re-elected (it is safe to say I will be reelected since I am unopposed), I and my fellow board members will continue to focus on doing what is best for our students, which includes eliminating barriers to student learning so that real educational opportunities are available to all of the children in our district. We must also continue to ensure that we are directing adequate resources to all of our students including those for whom English is not their first language and our students with special needs.

Turner: I will continue to focus on academic achievement for all students. We need to continue to close the gap between all groups of students and to make sure they continue to have equal access to learning. Another area of focus would be to continue to monitor all of our buildings. We have some buildings that were built in the 1960s, and at some point will need to have some work done, such as new roofs or heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. This type of work will not be inexpensive, so we as a district must constantly monitor the building conditions and find ways of maintaining them for the safety of our students. I would want to continue to work with making sure that our teachers have the tools they need to help their students have success.

What is the most important issue facing your district?

Kite: There is not one single important issue facing our school district and, unfortunately, there are no quick fixes to the many important issues that we are confronting together. We must continue to focus our efforts on eliminating the achievement gap, hiring and retaining the very best faculty and staff and making certain we have adequate resources, which includes our facilities, to do the important work of educating our students and keeping them safe. Being good stewards and making fiscally prudent decisions obviously means taking good care of and even improving — when it is necessary or prudent — our aging facilities.

Turner: One topic always comes up when you are working with a school district, and that is money. Money is important, but so is safety and building maintenance. However, the question is what I think the most important issue is for our district. I think there is still room to improve in closing the achievement gap and working to increase our ISTEP scores for our entire student population. I believe that IB’s inquiry-based learning will not only help with closing the gap, but also prepare our students for life. But to make this happen, we need a school board that works with the district, teachers, parents and, last but not least, the students. To me this is very important. We have an opportunity to positively touch and change young peoples’ lives, and to me that is important.

Anything else about yourself you’d like to share.

Kite: I am, and will continue to be, extremely passionate about our district and about public education as a whole. I do not focus exclusively on any one group of students or any one issue and am proud to say that I have been endorsed by both the Washington Township Parent Council and the Washington Township Education Association each of the three times that I have run for election to the school board.

During my years as a board member I have regularly attended many events throughout the district and over the course of the year, and not merely at the schools that my children attended when they were students in the township. While I hope that this demonstrates how I feel about our students and the district as a whole, I know that attending various events throughout the district allows me the opportunity to talk with parents, faculty, staff and administrators. I have been and will continue to be accessible to the township residents whether or not they presently have children in our schools. I genuinely love serving on the school board and have welcomed (and will continue to welcome) calls from and conversations with the members of our diverse community.

I sincerely believe that we ask a great deal of our teachers and that the board therefore must continue to seek teachers’ input and to consider how particular district policies and practices affect their vital work. Board members must also continue to seek input from other members of our community and to make fiscally responsible decisions.

Turner: I have a long history in Washington Township. I graduated from North Central High School, all three of my daughters attended Washington Township schools, and they also graduated from North Central, and my wife is a teacher at one of our elementary schools. I am truly vested in this community and want to see all of our students achieve all they can.

We have a great school district that strives for excellence in everything we do. This does not mean we are a perfect district. There are areas that we are always working to improve and are making some of those improvements. I would like to continue being a part of this continuous improvement because of my strong belief in the district from a personal perspective.

Answers have been edited for length.

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: