Published Online: February 19, 1997


Mayoral Control of Indianapolis Schools Mulled

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Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, troubled by an $8 million deficit and what he calls foot-dragging by the school board, is seeking control of the city's public schools.

The mayor and other critics say the board is hindering the spirited efforts of Superintendent Esperanza Zendejas to implement a 1995 state law that holds Indianapolis teachers and administrators accountable for school performance.

They also charge that the board is moving too slowly to close the shortfall in its $275 million budget.

The latest dispute stems from the board's rejection late last month of a plan by Ms. Zendejas to warn a dozen principals that they could be fired if their schools don't shape up.

Meanwhile, the Indianapolis Education Association is pushing a bill in the legislature that would overhaul the accountability law, arguing that it is unfair. The House education committee approved the bill last week on an 8-7 vote.

Chicago-style Plan

Talk of turning the 44,000-student system over to the mayor is the latest in a series of similar proposals for big-city districts since the Illinois legislature in 1995 gave control of the Chicago public schools to Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Mr. Goldsmith has asked Indiana legislators to consider the creation of a new three-member panel that would replace the existing seven-member school board.

Its members would be appointed by the mayor, the Indiana governor, and the Center Township trustee, a local elected official.

"The board cannot afford to be timid in the face of a poorly performing system," Mr. Goldsmith said last week. "I will pursue the idea of abolishing the board until they hold people who fail accountable."

Ms. Zendejas, however, said that the board's rejection of her plan to warn principals that they could be fired does not mean that reforms in the district cannot succeed.

"This vote put a dent in our accountability plan, but it doesn't wreck the process," said Ms. Zendejas, the first Hispanic woman to hold the city's top schools job. Since she arrived in 1995, she has shaken up the district by putting schools on academic probation and otherwise keeping educators on their toes.("Accountability Is Watchword in Indianapolis," and "At Work in Indianapolis," both May 22, 1996.)

Though the school board president, Donald Payton, backed the superintendent, he said last week that the 4-3 vote to reject her plan doesn't mean the board can't do its job.

"I think the mayor should be the mayor, and the school board should be the school board," Mr. Payton said. "But it's extremely critical that the board and superintendent collectively decide how to evaluate people in the future. The more times we're divided, the more ammunition it gives to the people who want to abolish us."

Board member Mary E. Busch, an education professor at the University of Indianapolis, said she voted against warning the principals because they haven't had enough time to improve their schools and turnover is already a problem.

Yet another criticism of the board has been its hesitancy to close some half-empty schools to save money.

Mr. Payton explained that the board does not want to reconfigure enrollment until a federal judge decides whether to lift a 20-year-old desegregation order and return about 5,400 students to the district from neighboring townships.

Union Criticism

The bill that would overhaul the 1995 accountability law is expected to reach the House floor later this month.

The law unfairly holds the city's teachers responsible for test scores, student attendance, and parental involvement, argued Joyce Macke, the president of the Indianapolis Education Association. The bill would remove those criteria from professional evaluations, eliminate merit pay, and increase teachers' bargaining rights.

"We don't mind being held accountable, but not for things beyond our control," Ms. Macke said. "It's not fair to treat teachers in Indianapolis different from the rest of the state."

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