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January 26, 2014

MAUREEN HAYDEN: Law hits poverty-stricken schools hard

INDIANAPOLIS — Chuck Brimbury is no-excuses kind of guy.

Five years ago, he inherited a world of problems when he took over as school superintendent in Peru, a city of 13,000 people in rural Miami County. The high school graduation rate was stuck below 69 percent. Absenteeism and drop-out rates were among the state’s highest. Test scores were scraping bottom. The district faced a state take-over.

Now, the graduation rate is close to 98 percent, attendance has climbed and test scores have skyrocketed. Peru is a “turnaround” model, especially for schools facing the mandates of state education reform.

Last year, Brimbury’s peers honored him by naming him one of the best superintendents in the state.

These days Brimbury and his schools are a model for something else: unintended consequences. Facing drastic cuts – including a shutdown of bus service that could shut out marginal students – Peru’s schools illustrate the sometimes dire results of laws that may otherwise be well meaning.

Brimbury’s successes haven’t come easily, as he’s demanded more accountability from teachers and students. When students didn’t show up for class, he sent counselors to find them. When parents couldn’t come meet teachers, he sent teachers to the parents, wherever they were.

“We once had excuses for all our failures – a reason for everything that was going wrong,” he said. “We decided to drop those excuses.”

Things weren’t always so difficult in Peru, once a thriving community and the proud home to Grissom Air Force Base, which trained military pilots from around the world. But when the base closed in the 1990s, followed by nearby factories, the economy and the schools were casualties.

Today, 70 percent of Peru schoolchildren are from families in poverty. The city has one of the state’s highest rates of single mothers and one of its lowest incomes per capita. The tax base plunged from $460 million to $318 million in assessed value between 2007 and 2011, and it hasn’t recovered.

On top of that, the schools have faced a double whammy from the Legislature – a slash to school budgets in 2010, and the impact of property tax caps first passed in 2008. These brought deep cuts to the revenue available to patch leaking roofs, replace old buses, and get students to and from school. The district’s budget is down 20 percent since Brimbury’s arrival. He has cut $1 million from administrators’ salaries.

“We are down to the bones,” he told the Senate Appropriations Committee last Thursday.

Brimbury had traveled to the Statehouse, on a morning when the wind chill dipped below zero, seeking help from another legislative hit. This one came in the guise of a law compelling schools to pay off their debts using dollars now spent on transportation and big-ticket projects.

The law protects bondholders, especially those invested in what one lawmaker described to me as spendthrift districts “building Taj Mahals in cornfields.”

But that’s hardly Peru.

Rather, Brimbury’s already cut back bus routes and is now thinking of ending service entirely to students within two miles of the high school. In some communities, that might represent an inconvenience. In Peru, where so many students have few resources, it’s a crisis.

Ultimately, Peru may see a reprieve from a bill that would delay the start of the debt-service law for districts that otherwise might lose 20 percent or more of their transportation and capital budgets.

It’s more salve than solution for Peru. But for a no-excuses superintendent, that could be enough.

“I’m not asking you for more money. I just need some relief,” Brimbury said. “I just want you to help me get those kids to schools, so we can get them educated and break the cycle of poverty they’re in.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. Reach her at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com and follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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