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The death of local control

School officials watch as state role grows

A Republican lawmaker put out a news release at the end of this year’s legislative session boasting that lawmakers approved more local control and funding flexibility for schools.

Just try to convince members of your local school board that’s the case.

In the wake of a $297 million reduction in education spending statewide, school districts struggle to cut costs without laying off teachers, eliminating programs or shuttering schools. But the minimal leeway they once enjoyed is gone – stripped along with the small percentage of local property tax levy they controlled and handed over to the state in exchange for an increase in the sales-tax rate.

“What local control?” quips Diana Showalter, superintendent of Manchester Community Schools. “When the state assumed control of the general fund, they took control of the major financial source for the schools. … When we can’t control our own destiny through the collection of property taxes, we are setting ourselves up for a difficult time.”

In the Manchester schools, it means coping with nearly $1 million in budget cuts by eliminating most classroom assistants and cutting custodial and library staff. Next year, the seventh- and eighth-grade classes will be moved to the high school so that a building can be renovated and, eventually, all students in grades 5 through 12 combined in two buildings on one campus.

“Regardless of what Dr. (Tony) Bennett or the governor may say, when you lose control of the money coming in and finances go south, that’s more than paper and pencils you have to cut,” she said of the state superintendent’s insistence that classroom instruction not be affected by the deep budget cuts.

When teacher salaries and benefits make up more than 90 percent of the general fund costs, there’s not much to trim that will result in savings of $1 million or more.

The State Board of Education issued a “Citizens’ Checklist” requiring districts to examine, among other things, outsourcing services, setting up pay-to-play programs for sports or eliminating extracurricular programs altogether.

It’s intended to protect teaching jobs and, in turn, preserve classroom instruction. But when one southern Indiana school district came up with a way to close four elementary schools while preserving all teaching positions and maintaining class sizes, Gov. Mitch Daniels lashed out at the district for not being “as serious about their academic responsibilities as they could be.”

John Ellis, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said the governor’s criticism of the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated Schools’ decision is unprecedented.

“Local school districts have never had a great deal of control, but now they are being second-guessed on the decisions they are required to make because of the state. I don’t think we’ve ever had a time when local decisions were being second-guessed,” he said.

Ron Felger, who has served on the Northwest Allen County Schools board for almost three decades, said he’s never seen local boards as hamstrung by state oversight.

“It’s gutted local control,” he said.

Northwest Allen sent layoff notices to 24 teachers last week, hoping that salary and benefit concessions by the teachers union will allow them to call the teachers back in the fall.

Takeover threat

Manchester and Northwest Allen are fortunate in that they face only financial control issues. For districts like Fort Wayne Community Schools and East Allen County Schools, an outright state takeover is threatened. Five schools in Allen County are among the 23 that fall under sanctions of the state’s Public Law 221 accountability requirements.

Superintendent Bennett has made no secret of his intentions to take over schools if they fail to meet improvement targets. That’s a major policy switch from the Indiana Department of Education. In 2007, the administrator for the state board of education said that taking over schools wasn’t the department’s intention.

“We don’t exactly have a state takeover statute,” Jeff Zaring told The Journal Gazette. He said the intent was for schools to retain local control, with the state getting more involved only if they continued to struggle.

“The best decisions are probably those that are made closest to the students and closest to the classroom,” Zaring said at the time.

But in an interview last month, Bennett said he has warned all the superintendents in the 10 targeted districts that they must decide who should run their schools.

“I want to provide whatever supports they need to address these things themselves,” Bennett said. “I know who I want to run (Fort Wayne Community Schools). I have a lot of confidence in Wendy Robinson. But I have to be blunt – I can’t say that in the other nine situations.”

Kim Preston, spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education, said in an e-mail last week that the state is prepared to take over schools that “continuously struggle and consistently fail the students they are serving.”

“Think about the students sitting in those classrooms today,” she wrote. “They have no time to waste!”

Each of the 10 districts was required to submit an improvement plan to the state by last Friday (See “FWCS striving to keep it”).

More to come

Bennett said he hasn’t “developed a clear path” in how to run the schools. Since he took office, the department has eliminated more than 100 positions, including jobs held by experienced school administrators from throughout the state.

It has not been determined whether Cambridge Education will have a continuing role in the 23 schools.

If a remark from the governor is any indication, the state’s intent would appear to be a hand-off, not a takeover. Speaking to a class at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne last month, Daniels suggested that some Indiana school districts were unnecessarily laying off teachers and said that privatization would save money.

“They don’t need to cook their own food; they don’t need to operate their own buses,” he said. “If you can find it in the Yellow Pages, then maybe government shouldn’t be doing it.”

Taken to its inevitable conclusion, school management would be contracted out to a charter school or other educational management organization.

Ellis, of the state superintendents group, points out that the erosion of local control goes further than the Statehouse. The impetus for much of the state’s pressure on teachers unions, in fact, is coming from the U.S. Department of Education, where guidelines for millions of dollars in Race to the Top funds are tied to measures that would change the way teachers are hired and evaluated.

Ellis said there are indications those guidelines also will be applied in doling out federal funds that have long been left to the discretion of school districts – using Title I funds for students from poverty for preschool or remediation or after-school programs, for example.

Superintendent David Goodwin, a 20-year administrator at Steuben County Schools, said the biggest change in local control he’s seen in more than 40 years in education is control over curriculum, including what to teach and when. For example: A third-grade teacher who once taught a popular unit on dinosaurs could no longer do so when state standards dictated the topic be taught in fourth grade, he said.

“The whole accountability thing has changed that,” Goodwin said, noting that 48 states, including Indiana, have signed on to efforts to establish national school standards. “Maybe we’ll have national standards like we have state standards,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.”

With legislative and congressional races looming, voters must decide what role they want the federal and state government to have in their schools – keeping in mind that cutting the size of government is not the same as preserving local control.

Karen Francisco has been an Indiana journalist since 1982 and an editorial writer at The Journal Gazette since 2000. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail,