The (Munster) Times. November 3, 2017
Desperate measures needed for Gary schools
The dire straits of Gary's beleaguered public school system call for desperate measures for the sake of the city's schoolchildren.
One of the most crucial steps already occurred in a state-mandated administrative takeover by private firm Gary Schools Recovery LLC.
Earlier this week, firm Emergency Manager Peggy Hinckley laid out some of the plans for attempting to right the sinking ship of Gary schools while speaking to the State Board of Finance.
Hinckley must have the latitude to do all that is necessary, and residents and other school and government leaders must realize that no amount of sentimentality should prevent necessary action.
This sentiment is particularly relevant when weighing Hinckley's statement that one of the city's high schools is likely to be shuttered at the end of this academic year as part of a cost-cutting move.
Critics, no doubt, will lament that the move would leave but one city high school.
That argument would be incomplete and disingenuous.
It's true Hinckley is talking about closing down one of the two high schools still under the auspices of the Gary Community School Corp. - either West Side Leadership Academy or Wirt-Emerson Visual and Performing Arts - and consolidating students in the facility that would remain.
But there still will be more than one high school in Gary under this plan.
Roosevelt College and Career Academy, a Gary high school taken over in an separate move by the state in 2011, continues to operate. At some future point, the plan is for its eventual return to the auspices of Gary public schools.
Four charter schools - 21st Century Charter School, Thea Bowman Leadership Academy, Steel City Academy and Lighthouse College Prep Academy - also will continue to offer alternatives to the traditional city high schools. These institutions are supported by public tax dollars while offering parents and students a choice.
When speaking to state officials earlier this week, Hinckley noted the high school closure and consolidation plan "will not necessarily bring out a roaring crowd of approval."
But she also made a very salient point.
"High schools are the most expensive facilities to operate, and we must move to one," she said.
At some point, the school system must evolve to a financial position in which it isn't necessary to borrow millions of state dollars in order to meet basic needs, including paying its teachers and keeping the lights on.
The district owes $8.4 million in back taxes, penalties and interest to the IRS.
The Gary school district is the first to be taken over by the state after its elected trustees repeatedly failed to adopt balanced budgets and ran up $100 million in debt.
Hinckley and her firm now must be allowed to do their jobs. Sentimentality over saving some school buildings must be pushed aside.
The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette. November 3, 2017
Virtual reality: Online school enriches owner, but few students
Accountability was the buzzword when Indiana school-choice proponents pushed for taxpayer-funded options to traditional public schools. But their interest in accountability has faded now that the state offers man options - particularly in oversight of the fast-growing sector of online education.
An investigation of Indiana Virtual School by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news service focused on education issues, finds the Indianapolis-based online school collected nearly $10 million from the state in 2015-16 while graduating only 5.7 percent of its seniors - the lowest graduation rate in Indiana. Chalkbeat's Shaina Cavazos found a web of business interests between school founder Thomas Stoughton and AlphaCom, a for-profit company he operated while charging the school $6 million for "management services" and rent for its offices in a suburban Indianapolis office park.
As millions flowed to Stoughton's AlphaCom, little appeared to flow to the virtual school itself. Cavazos reported Indiana Virtual School spent 89 percent of its $9.7 million in state funding on "support services," which can include administrative and legal services. Instructional costs seemed to have been kept low by hiring few teachers - only 21 teachers for 4,682 students. That's a ratio of one teacher for every 222 students. By comparison, Southwest Allen County Schools has a teacher-to-student ratio of one to 17, the national average. The teacher-to-student ratio for online schools overall is one to 30.
Nor does Indiana Virtual School appear to direct much state funding for equipment. Unlike many online schools, IVS does not provide a home computer for student use.
The school did spend $500,000 in 2015 on a contract for technology and website design, according to Cavazos. The contract went to A Simple Reminder Inc., a company owned by Stoughton's son.
Chalkbeat notes that nonprofit leaders are prohibited by federal tax regulations from benefiting individually from their organizations. State charter school law requires potential conflicts to be reported, but contract documents provided to the news organization failed to disclose any possible conflicts, and an attorney for the school told Cavazos that contracts between IVS and AlphaCom - both headed by Thomas Stoughton - have been lost. A 2013 audit noted the entities had "a common board member."
Another beneficiary of state funding is the public school district that serves as authorizer for Indiana Virtual School, Daleville Community Schools. For 3 percent of Indiana Virtual School's state funding, it serves the same role as Ball State University, Grace College, the Indiana State Charter Board and a handful of other organizations in granting a charter and - ostensibly - overseeing a school's operation. But Daleville Superintendent Paul Garrison told Cavazos there was little he could do to address the school's poor performance.
"I can't say, 'Do this!' And you have to do it," Garrison told Chalkbeat. "You've got a death sentence you can use and nothing else."
Pulling the school's charter would cost Garrison's district its share of the online school's state funding. That amounted to less than $300,000 in 2015, but the district stood to collect about $750,000 for a 2016-17 enrollment of 2,947 students.
Whatever supervision and assistance Daleville Schools has offered seems to have done little to improve performance. In addition to its abysmal graduation rate, the online school posted a 10th-grade ISTEP+ passing rate of 8 percent. Only one in five of the school's students in grades 6-8 passed the statewide exam.
In spite of its record, Indiana Virtual School is expanding. The Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, operated out of the same Indianapolis offices, opened this fall for students in grades 9-12. Enrollment for the two schools is 6,332, according to Chalkbeat.
Now it's Indiana taxpayers who should demand accountability. Legislators passed the original charter school law and amended it to allow Indiana Virtual School and other online schools to open, presumably because the competition would make traditional public schools more accountable. Shouldn't fiscal and academic accountability also be required of the school-choice options the General Assembly created?
South Bend Tribune. November 1, 2017
Protect everyone's voting rights
Frank Fotia, the Republican member of St. Joseph County's Voter Registration Board, said a new state law that allows local officials to remove voters from their rolls if it is believed they have moved to another state has had no impact on the county up to now.
Common Cause Indiana is suing Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, accusing her office of allowing voters to be illegally purged from the state's voting rolls.
Critics argue the new law eliminates a requirement for state officials to comply with safeguards when removing certain voters from the rolls. They say Indiana's cross-checking of names on voter rolls using the "Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck" system violates federal law and is discriminatory.
Fotia said the county in the past has relied on a system of mail notification to try and verify a voter's registration. Two letters are sent, and if the county never hears from that voter again, it would wait two years and then purge them from the rolls.
"We try to err on the side of leaving someone on the rolls," Fotia said, adding that his office is open 12 hours Election Day ready to issue a certificate of error if voter can prove residency.
Fotia said Voter Registration hasn't received much direction from the state regarding the new law.
The Crosscheck system has been roundly criticized for its inaccuracy. Error rates as high as 17 percent have been found, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy institute. And officials with the center have said a 2016 analysis found that minorities are more likely to be flagged for removal by the Crosscheck process.
Any process that complicates or creates obstacles to a person's right to vote is unreasonable. Like many of the voter ID laws that have been adopted across the country, the laws are a solution in search of a problem. They threaten to disenfranchise voters. And like what is occurring right now in the Hoosier state, they should be challenged.
The (Bloomington) Herald-Times. October 31, 2017
Yoder-related project should be judged in transparency on merits
A solid waste transfer facility is always going to be controversial to people who live in the proximity.
A controversial business owned by a public official is always going to multiply the potential for concern.
It's good to be aware of both points, but to try to separate one from the other.
What we're talking about in this case is a Bloomington-based company owned by Monroe County Council member Shelli Yoder, which has applied for a permit to open a solid waste transfer facility in western Monroe County.
The application has raised concerns from people who live close to the vacant 2.83-acre parcel, and it would have done so no matter who the applicant was.
"To say we were flabbergasted would be the understatement of the century," said Jill Hudson, who along with Dwight Worker, another person who lives in the area, has been passing a petition about the location of the proposed facility. She cites noise, pollution and contamination as her primary concerns.
Yoder says the company, called Indiana Green Transfer and Recycling, "will provide an alternative to the taxpayers and residents of Monroe County that will be both cheaper and more environmentally friendly to the current situation."
Her presence in the issue brings to the table the issue of potential conflict of interest. County government works closely with the Solid Waste Management District on issues of solid waste disposal.
County Attorney David Schilling told the H-T that he does not think there is any conflict of interest in Yoder seeking to open such a business because she has no direct involvement in county planning or the Solid Waste Management District and would not have a vote on the issue. Also, the permit application is made to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
She does, however, work closely with many people who are involved with county planning and the Solid Waste Management District.
In a community the size of Bloomington, it's nearly impossible for no potential conflicts to arise when active, engaged citizens become part of city or county government.
The key is for them to declare all conflicts and for boards and commissions that get to vote on proposals to do so with a high degree of transparency.
County attorney Schilling addressed this issue as well: "Being an elected official doesn't strip you of the rights other citizens have," he said.
It does put extra pressure on public officials who do bring public projects forward to make sure their proposals are strong as possible and that they cross every "t'' and dot every "i."
Once that's finished, the public process should proceed as it does for all other businesses and applicants. This plan should be allowed to rise or fall on its merits - under careful scrutiny, of course.