Feds, ‘encouraged’ by Tindley’s financial efforts, award network $1.9M grant

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Indianapolis charter school network Tindley Accelerated Schools has received a $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education from a program that aims to fund “the creation and expansion of public charter schools across the nation.”

Tindley, which has six schools across Indianapolis that in the past have been lauded for academic excellence, says it learned of the grant last week. Most of the grant money will be used to "enhance the teaching resources” in elementary schools and to support literacy of students, according to the network.

“We’re definitely excited about receiving it,” said the school’s interim CEO Kelli Marshall. “We don’t plan on opening any more buildings, but we now can better support the programs we currently have.”

Marshall said she believed the network was “definitely helped” by national attention its flagship high school has received over the years. The Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School earned a designation as a national "blue ribbon school” in 2010.

Marshall said the network has experienced enrollment growth since last year, when enrollment deficits hurt the network’s cash flow. Last year, Tindley ended the year with 1,523 students. The network currently has 1,820 students.

The grant was part of $245 million that was given through the federal education department’s 2016 Charter School Program grant cycle. The program has invested more than $3 billion into schools since 1995.

Most of the money went to larger charter school networks, including KIPP, a national network with schools in Indianapolis. Several state education departments also received millions, although the state of Indiana was not among those awarded.

The program "supports the creation of high-quality public charter schools by providing start-up funds for new charter schools, strengthening accountability for charter school performance, sharing leading practices that enable school success, and ultimately, improving educational outcomes for students from high-need communities,” according to the federal education department.

But some national education groups warn the grant awards should be tracked and awarded more carefully, given what they say is a history of lacking financial accountability and performance standards in the charter sector.

A spokesman for the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher’s union, pointed to Tindley’s own financial oversight problems as evidence of that. The group is calling for regular audits and increased financial transparency for the charter industry.

IBJ reported last year the Tindley network was experiencing money problems due to enrollment shortfalls. The school network met 75 percent of its enrollment goal in 2015, causing a $2.8 million revenue shortfall, which meant the network had to eliminate some jobs.

IBJ also reported last year that while the organization was having money problems, former CEO Marcus Robinson used a Tindley credit card to make frequent first-class flights, stay at four- and five-star hotels—including the Ritz Carlton and the Waldorf Astoria—and pay for meals. Robinson resigned two months after IBJ reported on the group’s money troubles.

Auditors also found a material weakness and two significant deficiencies on a review of Tindley’s 2014 financials submitted to the State Board of Accounts. And the Mayor’s Office noted problems on the network’s last accountability report in the areas of financial management and board oversight.

Among the concerns in those reports were a lack of internal controls over financial reporting; the management of outsourced bookkeepers; preparation of an accurate schedule of expenditures; and late submission to the mayor’s office of employee spreadsheets, board meeting minutes and quarterly financial reports.

The mayor’s office told IBJ at the time that they were working with Tindley to fix some of those issues.

Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, told IBJ that the federal education department felt “encouraged” by recent actions of the Indianapolis charter chain to shore up its finances.

"During the Department’s review of Tindley’s grant application, we determined that the organization took appropriate corrective actions to address concerns about its financial management capabilities,” Nolt said in a statement to IBJ. "Those actions include: the resignation of the CEO, hiring an experienced interim CEO, adding several new members to Tindley’s governing board and hiring a new treasurer, enhancing its internal controls, increasing community outreach and involvement of school principals in efforts to increase student enrollment, and reviewing existing school discipline policies and involving parents in the development of new policies.”

Marshall told IBJ the three-year grant was “very restrictive” and “specifically mapped out as to how it can be utilized."

For instance, Nolt said there were “special conditions on Tindley’s grant related to concerns about plans to expand the organization’s single-sex educational programs.” Tindley has separate middle schools for boys and girls.

The conditions include requiring federal approval before establishing any new single-sex educational offerings during grant period, requiring Tindley to detail to the federal government how it is implementing teaching strategies within those environments, and requiring that the network cooperate with federal assistance the department “determines is necessary to ensure compliance with the Equal Protection Clause, federal civil rights statutes, regulations, or additional special conditions."

Nolt said the federal education department would “continue to monitor Tindley’s grant closely to ensure that federal resources go toward expanding access to high-quality educational opportunities for children in Indiana.”

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