Ballard moves to shut down The Project School

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It looks like there will be no back to school at The Project School, a charter school just northeast of downtown.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard announced Tuesday evening that he intends to revoke the charter that gives The Project School the authority to operate. Ballard cited poor test scores and “recently discovered financial problems.”

The four-year-old school, which is publicly funded, has never seen more than 30 percent of its students pass both the math and reading portions of the state standardized ISTEP test.

This year, the passage rate for the school’s 311 students in grades K-8 was 28.9 percent, according to data released this month by the Indiana Department of Education.

"The Project School ranks among the worst performing schools in Marion County and in the entire state," Ballard said in a prepared statement. He added that The Project School’s 2012 academic results likely would produce an "F" grade under the state's new accountability standards.

A message seeking comment from Tarrey Banks, the leader of The Project School, was not returned. The Project School has 15 days to respond to Ballard's decision before it becomes final.

A notice of revocation sent to The Project School paints an ugly picture of the school's finances. It claims the school has run a deficit in each of the last three years and now has nearly $5.3 million in debt. The notice also states that The Project School delayed paying its staff this month by one week because it had so little cash on hand.

The notice of revocation also cited a report by the Indiana State Board of Accounts, which found that The Project School had improperly used more than $63,500 in federal facilities and planning grant money to pay salaries and operational expenses.

Jason Kloth, who is Ballard's deputy mayor for education, said the mayor's staff became concerned about the school's finances last week and requested additional information. The school provided that information on Monday, which prompted the decision to revoke the charter.

"We just felt like this was a decision we had to make," Kloth said, referring to The Project School's academic and financial performance. He added, "This was a really difficult decision because it means we'll have to work to place the students in the next three weeks."

Indeed, Ballard’s decision comes less than a month before the new school year begins, and will cause The Project School’s students to scramble to find a new school. So to help those students find new homes, Ballard tapped his former communications chief Robert Vane, as well as Angela Smith-Jones, the director of public policy at the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, to be trustees overseeing the school.

Vane, Smith-Jones and Ballard’s charter school staff will host a school enrollment fair for students and parents at 6 p.m. on July 26, at Overcoming Church, located at 2203 N. Columbia Ave.

 Kloth said the mayor's staff has already identified schools within Indianapolis Public Schools, other charter schools, as well schools run by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis that have spaces available for The Project School students.

In early May, David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education reform group, called for the closure of The Project School, as well as three others. Harris was the city’s first director of charter schools under previous Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson.

Harris’ comments sparked an angry backlash from parents and educators connected with The Project School.

Mike Higbee, a board member of The Project School, called Harris’ comments a “verbal grenade” that did not acknowledge that most students at The Project School have been there only one or two years, and that students who have been there three and four years show remarkable progress on the ISTEP test.

“The school has much work to do,” Higbee wrote in a letter to IBJ.  “The statistics above demonstrate that the majority of students are new to the school. The school’s impact must be measured over three to four years, not after the first year or two.”

Ballard has closed down one other charter school, Stonegate Early College High School. He also decided not to renew the charter of Fountain Square Academy, but that school has since won approval for a new charter from Ball State University.

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