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 email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.
Chuck Brimbury is no-excuses kind of guy.
- News Columns
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Inept amid partisan fury
Retired Congressman Lee Hamilton has warned of the perils of political ideology, calling the body where he spent 34 years “noxiously partisan.” Now, he worries the divide is downright dangerous.
MARK BENNETT: Giving new voice to Ehrmann’s words
Max Ehrmann’s bronze face may break into a grin soon.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Lake Michigan’s ‘Wonderful World of Color’
Despite the beauty around us, Joanie and I thought of television as we sat on a gorgeous Michigan beach one evening last week.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Expiring term heightens the urgency of one lawmaker’s push for reform
State Rep. Rebecca Kubacki had plans for her return to the General Assembly next January.
The two-term Republican from Kosciusko County wanted to exert “full force” to roll back a law that prevents the children of undocumented immigrants from paying in-state tuition to attend state colleges and universities.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Road to funding Indiana highways jammed
If you’ve driven on either of Indiana’s two busiest interstates recently, you’ll understand why a blue-ribbon commission last week called for adding traffic lanes to those harrowing highways.
MARK BENNETT: Making road work a barrel of fun for drivers
We’re lucky orange barrels can’t talk.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Wet in Wyoming, wandering turtles and other tales of the road
It is an odd thing, after all the miles I drove a few weeks ago — to the mountains of Wyoming and back again — that today I remember most of all stopping along the road in two places nearly 600 miles apart.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Financial hardships mount for military families
Days before the July 4th holiday, Holly Petraeus stood on the steps of the imposing Indiana War Memorial, in front of a bank of cameras, and made a plea to military families: Don’t let pride stand in the way of asking for help.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Tangled road to simplified tax code
Pushing his idea that a simpler tax system can boost Indiana’s economy, Gov. Mike Pence invited prominent conservative economists to a closed-to-the-public conference last week.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Homegrown spirits return to State Fair
Mark Webb is counting on patrons of the Indiana State Fair to be better behaved this summer than they were in 1946, when a celebratory post-war crowd almost trashed the place.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Coauthor of election laws may have to worry about own race
Connie Lawson had a speech ready for the state Republican party delegates who picked her as their Secretary of State candidate, putting her at the top of an all-female ticket in November.
MAX JONES: Fathers, sons and the tides of war
The wonderful and poignant stories and tributes the past week about D-Day have been both heartbreaking and uplifting.
MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute: The downtown that can
Two words can refute many of the “can’ts” occasionally uttered about this town.
MIKE LUNSFORD: It’s the true ‘face of spring’
I’d be a liar if I said that I miss the yellow carpet of dandelions that dotted my front yard just a few weeks ago.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Gregg weighs another shot at gov’s office
John Gregg made his handlebar mustache an iconic image in his failed 2012 race for governor, turning it into a campaign logo and telling tales of how he stuck to his Yosemite Sam guns when advisers pressed him to shave it.
MARK BENNETT: Returning the dome to Normal
Folks at Indiana State University haven’t summoned Indiana Jones, yet.
MARK BENNETT: Midwest baseball fans flock to Valley tourney
As a major sporting event — the Missouri Valley Conference Baseball Championship — began to unfold in Terre Haute this week, a familiar question cropped up.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Summer study groups do the Legislature’s legwork
Back before the recession of 2008 hit Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels launched an ambitious initiative called Hoosiers on the Move.
MIKE LUNSFORD: A face only a mother could love
It is fitting that Mother’s Day comes when it does, for spring is a maternal season, one for new beginnings, for birth and rebirth, for flowering and nurturing and caring.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Struggling schools look for funding relief
Ball State University economist Michael Hicks had some unwelcome news when he met with leaders of the scenic Ohio River town of Madison last summer, after they asked his advice on growing their community.
ALICIA MORGAN: Today, let’s celebrate the rewards
Mother’s Day is not about mothers at all.
B.J. RILEY: Tooth Fairy’s real; I’ve seen her
As strange as it might sound, I think of the tooth fairy each Mother’s Day.
MARK BENNETT: Like other Indiana counties, Vigo struggles with voter apathy
Vigo Countians who trekked to the new voting centers, who endured long lines at a couple of popular sites, and who learned to use the new touch-screen machines displayed solid civic spirit in Tuesday’s primary election.
MAUREEN HAYDEN: Public higher education graduation rates leave much to be desired
On the sprawling urban campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Zebulun Davenport has one of the more difficult jobs.
MARK BENNETT: Low, and OK with it
The little sticker in the upper-left corner of a vehicle’s windshield reminds us — three months in advance — when to get an oil change.
A safe, scenic path from downtown Terre Haute to the river worth planning
The community has to want it.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Lasting beauty: Miss Kinsey’s forsythia
It always seems like it’s Sunday when we notice Miss Kinsey’s forsythia. Joanie and I will be driving home from church, most often with our windows down so we can enjoy springtime breezes and smells.
MAUREEN HAYDEN: Governor beyond the office, script
On a shelf in the home office of Gov. Mike Pence are some cowboy spurs and an old pair of riding boots — signs of how the first-term executive and his family relax in their spare time.
MARK BENNETT: The memories from a baseball mitt fit like a glove
Man hasn’t developed the technology for time travel.
The smell of your old baseball glove can come pretty close, though.
Answering the call
Static was the only thing on TV or radio. People were on their knees as they prayed. It was, as if for three whole days, the world stood still.
- More News Columns Headlines
- STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Inept amid partisan fury