Bill to strengthen school-district oversight draws criticism

Some Indiana school officials say a bill that would create a system to monitor school districts' financial health and punish struggling schools goes too far.

The legislation would take power away from elected school boards, limit how often they meet and allow state officials to take away a superintendent's license if the district is struggling financially for too long.

The consequences are meant to stop school districts from falling into financial distress, said Rep. Tim Brown, a Crawfordsville Republican, who authored the bill.

"How long do we go before somebody is held responsible?" Brown said.

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township Schools and president of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said he's concerned that it will make it difficult for struggling schools to hire top talent, such as the kind of administrators who can lead a district through difficult times.

If the bill is passed, it would limit Muncie Community Schools and the Gary Community School Corporation. Muncie misspent a $10 million bond and couldn't repay it, while Gary is more than $100 million in debt and was taken over last year.

The state's Distressed Unit Appeals Board voted last month to classify Muncie schools as an official distressed unit, which would mean the district would face at least two years of emergency management. An amendment to the bill would instead give Ball State University control of the Muncie district.

The proposal is an extension of the university's mission of educating students, said Ball State President Geoffrey Mearns. The university would work to create innovative programs and services to attract families back to the school district.

"The future of Muncie is dependent on the quality of our public schools," Mearns said. "The fortunes of our university are affected by the fortunes of Muncie."

The bill is still pending with the House Ways and Means Committee.

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