Edison Claims Gary, Ind., District is Blocking School Turnaround

Updated 5 p.m. Aug. 3 with robocall audio

Indiana’s education department and the management company it hired to take over a low-performing high school in the city of Gary are finding the actual “takeover” isn’t so easy to pull off. So much so, that the management company, EdisonLearning, filed a lawsuit against Gary’s school district, alleging officials are obstructing the process by withholding student records and misleading parents about the upcoming school year.
As a result, when Theodore Roosevelt Career & Technical Academy opens Aug. 15, the school could be in worse shape than the district left it, the company says.

“Worst case scenario is we have a really poor opening and the school is in such a condition that we can’t have students in it,” said Todd McIntire, a senior vice president at Edison, based in New York, in a phone interview.

The district, the Gary Community School Corporation, denies the allegations. Robert Lewis, an attorney for the district, said the July 13 contract the state signed with EdisonLearning to manage Roosevelt didn’t give the district enough time to comply with the company’s demands.

This week, a Marion County Superior Court judge sent both sides back to the negotiating table. On Friday, the two sides agreed to extend its negotiation deadline into the weekend and the judge obliged, Lewis said. He said an agreement is expected some time Friday or Monday. (You can read the lawsuit and background at the end of the post. It’s not boring.)
In a phone interview, Lewis said the sides are close to an agreement, but “there’s work still to be done.”

A 1999 school accountability law allows the state education department to intervene with an individual school and revoke the local district’s authority, but this is the first time it has exercised that right, said Emily Richardson, the assistant director of Indiana’s Office for School Improvement and Turnaround, in an email. Roosevelt is one of seven schools performing low enough for state takeover (the others are in Indianapolis). Five of those schools were given turnaround operators, and four were assigned education management organizations (EMOs) like Edison, which are usually for-profit.

(For the state’s perspective on the policy, read Rick Hess’s blog post last year.)

In 2011, the state pegged the 1,344-student Roosevelt for takeover after it scored below 60 percent on a rating that combines middle and high school state test scores, and failed to improve on those scores for five consecutive years. In 2010-11, Roosevelt scored 30 percent on that rating, a 7 percent decline from the previous year and 40 points below the state average (as a district, Gary scored 55 percent that year). Seventy-four percent of Roosevelt’s students are eligible for free- or reduced-price meals.
After several public hearings to determine a turnaround plan, Edison was named the school’s operator. Richardson said the operators for low-performing schools were chosen to push major improvements in a short amount of time.

But the transition—which requires Edison and Gary to enter an agreement on central school functions like instruction, transportation, and facility management— has been rocky.

Edison alleges in the suit that district officials sent robocalls informing Gary parents if they didn’t expressly select Roosevelt as their child’s school next year, they would be transferred to one of two nearby schools. Edison claims the calls are illegal and intended to funnel Roosevelt students—and the state funding that follows them—back into district-operated schools.

But the call never mentions Roosevelt by name; it serves mainly as a marketing tool for Gary’s district-run schools that are in competition with the city’s charter schools, said Sarita Stevens, a spokeswoman for Gary Community School Corporation. The school began sending calls in 2003 when charters entered Gary, she said.

“It’s not territorial, it was our effort to recruit,” Stevens said in a phone interview Friday. “It’s a very competitive environment.”

I obtained an audio file of the call, available below. It describes the “new choices, new advantages for students in grades 7-12.” Roosevelt isn’t mentioned by name, but it does alert parents that students will be enrolled in one of the two schools if “we have not heard from you by June 20.” You can make your own judgment as to how misleading it is.

Gary district officials have also withheld student records that can be used for planning purposes, McIntire said. But to comply with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the district did not want to hand over records until Edison signed a contract with the state, Lewis countered. Gary has since distributed the records, but McIntire said they were incomplete and not in electronic format.

The building is also in disrepair, the suit says, with a leaky roof and broken elevators, and it’s been stripped of computers and athletic equipment by the district. Nuh-uh, said Lewis (I’m paraphrasing); the district removed nothing it wasn’t supposed to. Most of the equipment is in the building if Edison would just look harder for it, Stevens said.

Ultimately, the ordeal proves that school takeovers can be at best, a delicate dance, and, at worst, a schoolyard squabble. Birmingham, Ala., is experiencing a similar dilemma, though between public agencies. The state took over financial operations for the entire district. The school board responded by firing the superintendent and allegedly changing the locks on the doors and deactivating access cards. An Aug. 20 start date for the school year is in jeopardy.

Indiana’s law is “pretty rare,” McIntire said, but the controversial company isn’t a stranger to these situations. In Pennsylvania, Edison managed the conversion of a traditional public school to a charter school, and ended up with seven years of litigation over a lease agreement for the school building, McIntire said. The school opened under an injunction from a judge, granted one week before the start of the school year. Both sides eventually agreed to a lease settlement.

Edison’s history includes Chris Whittle, the serial entrepreneur and polarizing for-profit education proponent, four lackluster years as a publicly traded company, and criticism of its schools’ academic results. Edison is certainly a large target, as a national company with revenue often dependent on public funds. The company educates students in 25 states.

Lewis, Gary’s attorney, called Edison’s lawsuit premature. Because the law hasn’t been used, there’s no guarantee things will run as smoothly as both sides want, he said.

“This is the first time that Indiana has been exposed to any kind of takeover,” Lewis said. “There’s going to be some bumps in the road. None of us have experienced this before.”

Education Week: EdisonLearning vs. Gary Community School Corporation (Text)

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