March 14, 2023

Edison school board fires leader, cancels IPS expansion after racial slur allegation

Edison School of the Arts is known for its visual performing arts and academics curriculum, which serves K-8 students on the southwest side of Indianapolis.  - Elizabeth Gabriel / WFYI

Edison School of the Arts is known for its visual performing arts and academics curriculum, which serves K-8 students on the southwest side of Indianapolis.

Elizabeth Gabriel / WFYI

The longtime leader of the popular Edison School of the Arts was fired Tuesday evening by the nonprofit board that oversees the downtown magnet school following allegations the educator repeated the “n-word” to students of color earlier this month.

The board voted 4-2 to immediately terminate executive director and CEO Nathan Tuttle, who had run the school since 2014 and was overseeing a future expansion. Board members Kesha Dixon and Ted Givens abstained from the vote. 

“The Board of Directors of the school has determined that under Tuttle's leadership, a significant divide has developed among students, parents, faculty, and the staff of the school,” said board member Ernest Disney-Britton during the Tuesday meeting.  

Tuttle had been on administrative leave since the incident on March 2. He did not attend the meeting.

The board also unanimously voted to stop an expansion of the K-8 arts model to James Whitcomb Riley School 43 in midtown that was just months away and part of the Indianapolis Public Schools’ overhaul of district academic offerings. The IPS School Board signed a deal with Tuttle in December to operate School 43 and planned improvements and additions at the site as part of the expansion, such as construction of a black box theater.

“I have lost my job tonight,” Tuttle said to WFYI in a text message after the meeting.”I built and ran one of the most successful and unique schools in the city of Indianapolis for almost a decade without a mark on my record. I no longer do that. I am saddened beyond words. My heart is always with student safety and student achievement.” 

Tuttle’s education career spans more than 20 years with nearly all of it at Edison and James A. Garfield School 31.

“I appreciate the prayers and support,” Tuttle wrote. “Please keep them coming as our family will be going through some changes and some very difficult decisions.”

Edison is a magnet school known for its visual performing arts and academics curriculum, which serves K-8 students on the southwest side of Indianapolis. Edison is an innovation school within the Indianapolis Public Schools’ district, and operates through a special contract that allows the school autonomy from some district policies and an exemption from collective bargaining contracts for staff. Edison converted to this type of model in 2017.

Edison is not an authorized charter school like most of the innovation schools in IPS. Rather, it is operated by the nonprofit board of the Edison School of the Arts Inc.

The IPS administration and school board issued a statement in support of the Edison board. 

“We believe Edison’s Board has responded to the feedback and concerns from staff and families and has taken the appropriate and necessary steps to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for its students, staff, and families,” the statement read. “As an IPS Innovation partner school, the district will continue to walk alongside the Edison community to provide support where needed.

The district agreed with the decision to not move forward with the program expansion to School 43. 

“The IPS administration will work closely with School 43 families, staff, and community members and partners to determine the new path forward at James Whitcomb Riley for the 2023–24 school year,” the statement said, 

The majority of the school’s nearly 600 students identify as students of color or qualify for free and reduced meals, the national child poverty indicator. 

Over the past two weeks, students and staff have been on edge after Tuttle, who is White, repeated a racial slur. A students said the n-word, and then Tuttle allegedly repeated it when he told the students any form of that word was unacceptable, according to multiple people.

The Edison board hired the law firm Barnes and Thornburg to investigate the incident and survey staff about the school’s culture and climate.

The board also unanimously approved Amy Berns, the current elementary school principal, as the interim building administrator. Berns will also be reappointed as the elementary school principal. Sheena Roach will transition from assistant principal to the middle school principal. As of now, the board is unsure if or when they will reinstate the CEO position after the board reviews the school’s organizational chart and job descriptions. 

The board also passed a separate resolution to review its policies and procedures. The school will ban all racially inappropriate or offensive language on school property. 

Board member Greg Wallis announced the board will begin working on multiple next steps, such as a parent committee, a monthly personnel review and monthly building reports to talk through issues among students, parents and staff. 

Correction: Greg Wallis announced the planned next steps of the Edison School of the Arts board. A previous version of this story misidentified Ted Givens as the board member who said it. 

Contact WFYI education reporter Elizabeth Gabriel at Follow on Twitter: @_elizabethgabs.

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