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Potential blow to local control

Lawmakers have been chipping away at local control of Indiana schools for several years; now they are poised to end it entirely for some districts. A bill that has received little to no attention allows the appointed State Board of Education to dissolve elected local school boards if a district receives a D or F on the state’s flawed grading formula for four years.

While no Allen County school districts are in imminent danger, Marion Community Schools, in Grant County, has earned grades of D and F the past two years. Indianapolis Public Schools, Evansville-Vanderburgh Community Schools, Kokomo-Center Township and nine other districts could be two years away from state takeover if the law applies to current grades.

The House Education Committee chairman, Robert Behning of Indianapolis, wrote House Bill 1337. It is a makeover of Public Law 221, the 1999 school accountability law. Behning seeks to strip control from local officials and hand it to the state board, made up of 10 members appointed by the governor.

Separately, Behning has proposed legislation to strip the state superintendent of public instruction, who serves as chairman of the board, of that authority. HB 1309 calls for the election of a vice chairman with authority to “call meetings, set and amend agendas, arrange for witnesses, and carry out other administrative functions related to the meetings of the state board.”

Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education calls the bills the “Sour Grapes Election Bills,” given their intent to nullify the defeat of former Superintendent Tony Bennett by Democrat Glenda Ritz.

Behning’s committee will hear HB 1337 this morning, plus a bill offered by Bennett’s former chief of staff, Todd Huston. HB 1360 turns the Education Roundtable, currently co-chaired by the governor and state superintendent, into the “Governor’s Education and Workforce Roundtable.” It reduces Ritz to a minority voice – one of four co-chairs along with the governor and two of his appointees, the commissioner for higher education and the commissioner for the department of workforce development.

In sum, the legislation represents a shameless power grab by Behning and Huston – a willful effort to overturn results of the last election and to seize control of local school districts.

John Barnes, director of legislative affairs for the Department of Education, said Ritz is supportive of some changes in the roundtable, including efforts to promote collaboration among state agencies. He said the department is encouraged by efforts from the governor’s office to work with the new superintendent and is hopeful that changes will be made to the bills to improve the education panel and the state’s accountability program.

State budget

The House Ways and Means Committee meets this morning for the first discussion of HB 1001, the biennial budget bill. The spending proposal was released last week, without income tax relief sought by Gov. Mike Pence.

Even before the November election, House and Senate fiscal leaders were expressing reservations about Pence’s plan. Pence said in a news release last week that House leaders indicated the tax cut might still be included, but public comments from budget leaders suggest otherwise.

One of the key differences between Pence and House budget writers – Republicans all – concerns funding for roads. Pence called for spending half the state’s surplus on roads instead of pension obligations, which could total nearly $350 million over two years. But some key lawmakers note that funding could be cut or even eliminated if the surplus is less than expected. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown’s budget would move $250 million a year from gasoline excise tax revenue that now goes to other state agencies toward road funding – requiring the state to use general fund revenue to fund those agencies.

Tax abatements

Fort Wayne City Council members Tuesday will discuss a plan to more clearly define the city’s approach to property tax abatements and give the council authority to rescind abatements for companies that fail to meet their own targets for numbers of jobs and amount of investments.

School lottery

Fort Wayne Community Schools’ annual lottery for parents seeking to place their children in schools outside their attendance district is set for Friday. The district uses the lottery system when applicants for transfer exceed the number of spaces at a school. About a third of FWCS families choose schools outside their attendance district. With three charter schools set to close, interest in FWCS schools could be higher this fall.

The deadline for transfer applications was Feb. 1.

The week ahead

Fort Wayne City Council: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Citizens Square

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