March 19, 2020

IPS Board Meets In Empty Room, Approves Restarts, Prepares For Uncertain Future

The layout of the Indianapolis Board of School Commissioners' board room just before the action meeting began on Thursday, March 19, 2020. Tables and chairs for district staff and media are spaced at least six-feet apart in following CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. - Brad McQueen for WFYI

The layout of the Indianapolis Board of School Commissioners' board room just before the action meeting began on Thursday, March 19, 2020. Tables and chairs for district staff and media are spaced at least six-feet apart in following CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Brad McQueen for WFYI

It was an odd meeting for the Indianapolis Board of School Commissioners.

Less than 10 people were in the boardroom at the district headquarters Thursday. It was a stark contrast to the past two months when meetings were standing room only as board members, parents and teachers argued about what is best for three city schools.

Four board members sat with large spaces between them at their usual rounded desk and three others took part by phone.

The district, in following CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, limited the number of people in the room to 10. Media could sit in, if the attendance threshold was not met, but the public was blocked from attending. Instead, the public could only watch via a Facebook Live stream and submit comments in advance electronically. Another live video feed did not work due to technical difficulties.

Michael O’Connor, board president, says future meetings will be similar and focus on vital issues.

The meeting came only hours after Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered all schools in the state to be closed until May 1, as part of precautions to stop the spread of the pandemic.

During the 38 minute meeting, the board approved a resolution that will empower Superintendent Aleesia Johnson to negotiate changes to pay, benefits and leave policies, and allow some staff to work from home and possibly continue to pay others if they become sick.

Johnson, in a phone interview after the meeting, says the district will keep paying staff, including hourly employees.

“We don’t have an endless supply of resources and dollars coming into the district, so we will be talking with our finance team around those long term implications, but yeah, right now, that is still the intent,” she says.

Johnson says the school's leaders will spend the next two weeks, a time scheduled as the district’s spring break, to create an academic plan for students. She also wants to be able to answer questions like, “If I am a senior now, will I graduate?”

During the meeting, the commissioners narrowly approved, in a 4-3 vote, the restart of two F-rated schools and assigned two charter operators to become the new managers. The managers will enter into so-called “innovation” agreements with IPS and operate independently of some district policies and outside a collective bargaining contract for staff.

Johnson says the slim vote margin was expected based on previous comments by three commissioners who’ve raised concern over the restart process and how the district communicated with staff and families.

“I both respect the fact that we have a sort of diversity of perspectives on various school improvement strategies,” she says. “Ultimately the vote passed, the board accepted the administration's recommendation, and now we pivot forward to a healthy and smooth transition.”

A third operator was also approved to run Emma Donnan. The southside K-8 school’s current manager, a private company running the school for nearly eight years as part of state intervention, is being forced out this summer.

During the meeting, Johnson acknowledged the months of “substantial dialogue” on the restart proposal, mostly around Stephen Foster School 67, on the Near Westside. Johnson has urged the board to turn it and Louis B. Russell Jr. School 48 over to outsider partners to bring new leadership and curriculum to the schools.

Both are rated F, for consecutive years, and could have eventually faced a forced takeover from state officials if the district’s own restart intervention was not approved.

Since last year, parents of School 48 attended board meetings and asked for changes.
Stand For Children, a national advocacy group with a local chapter, has published parent’s testimonials and supported the new operator Phalen Leadership Academy.  Previously, Phalen’s Nicole Fama, says she hopes Principal Arthur Hinton and staff will want to remain at the school under their new management.

Some families and staff at School 67 pleaded with the board to not allow a new charter-school start-up to run the school, during the past two months. They wanted more time for the school’s principal to improve academics. Only 3.7 percent percent of students passed both the state math and English tests last year.

Now, local educator Alicia Hervey’s The PATH will operate the school.

The IPS board also approved a proposal 4-3 from Arlington Woods School 99 principal Tihesha Henderson to transform the school from a traditional district school into an innovation school. She will partner with Eastern Star Chruch’s The Rock Initiative and focus on emotional support for students.

In a statement, Henderson says the changes will allow the school “to add services and programs it could not otherwise have as a traditional IPS school, while maintaining stability for our community.”

Commissioner Venita Moore voted for the plan, but says principals like Henderson should not feel like the innovation-model is their only means to bring new ideas into a school.

“I expect in the very near future that we come up with some type of plan … so that many of our principals don’t have to consider or become part of the innovation network in order to be successful,” Moore says.

The new Adelante Schools will become the new manager for Emma Donnan Elementary-Middle School in the next school year. The board voted 6-1 for the manager led by Eddie Rangel and Matthew Rooney to run the school after the state’s takeover of the school ends this summer. Since 2012, the school has been run by the Florida-based Charter Schools USA.

“It is abundantly clear that the southside is strong and wants the best education possible for every child,” Rangel said in a statement.

Before the meeting started, 147 comments received this week were published on the board's website.

Contact WFYI education reporter Eric Weddle at or call (317) 614-0470. Follow on Twitter: @ericweddle.


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