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Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and board President Diane Arnold

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s plan to reorganize Indianapolis Public Schools’ leadership will require a “sizeable number” of his central office team to reapply for their jobs as the large-scale effort will both shrink the district’s management structure and refine its functions.

In an exclusive interview, Ferebee expanded on Friday’s short announcement of the reorganization on the district’s Web site, which lists a handful of new positions.

Ferebee declined to give key specifics, such as how many administrators will be given notice before the end of the year that they will have to reapply, what positions will be redefined, how many jobs will be cut or how much savings might be expected when all the changes are complete. But he called Friday’s announcement the first of at least three steps toward overhauling the way the district is managed.

There will be another round of of job realignments for the academic team next, followed by a similar process for the central office operations team, Ferebee said. In each case, a top deputy will be selected to oversee and realign employee groups. The academic team is led by Deputy Superintendent Wanda Legrand.

The systematic overhaul he described might have been unthinkable a year ago under former Superintendent Eugene White, who rejected the notion that the downtown bureaucracy saddled IPS. But the new superintendent’s charge is to make change and a majority of the school board members have publicly stated support for his plan.

The move was praised by board members and others who have called for a new direction in IPS’ management structure.

“This seems to be a pretty big shift in what needs to happen and a positive shift for the district,” said David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis education-focused non-profit that called for a deep cut in administrative spending two years ago.

Board members said they are behind the new superintendent and his plan, even if they recognize it puts many longtime administrators on the spot.

“Are people nervous? Probably so,” school board President Diane Arnold said. “My sense is change is difficult and it may be a scary time for some of them. Anytime you have a change of leadership there is consternation by employees. But we hired somebody to get different results. To get different results, you have to shake things up.”

At the end of the process, expected to be complete in late February, there will be fewer administrators and less spending downtown, Ferebee said. But the primary goal, he said, was assuring IPS had high quality leaders and an effective organizational design.

“We’re not going to create our organizational structure around adults,” he said. “We’re gong to create our structure around the needs of our students. If people in our organization are not performing at a high level we are going to give them an opportunity to improve but we want the most talented individuals leading our district.”

Battling bureacracy

IPS’ central office-led bureaucracy has been a target of heavy criticism in recent years as wasteful and ineffective.

In 2011, a bracing report from The Mind Trust suggested IPS could save as much as 80 percent of the $53 million it spends annually on managerial functions, in part by eliminating more than 445 jobs. The report suggested giving schools freedom to control their own budgets and hiring, suggesting the central office could be reduced to providing only basic services.

At the time, White rejected the notion that the central office was so wasteful, presenting a counter plan that offered to cut just 15 jobs.

But a newly elected school board majority forced White out in January and Ferebee came on as his permanent replacement this fall with a rethinking of how IPS operates as a top agenda item.

Ferebee said the job cuts and savings from his plan has not yet been determined but that it was nowhere near the Mind Trust’s vision.

“We will realize some savings but to think we can create a significant savings just by reducing central services? I think that’s not a good way to think about where we need to be,” he said. “We’re not going to get to a very large number. But it helps.”

That’s OK, Harris said, if in fact the district moves in the direction of spending more at the classroom level and giving high-scoring schools more freedom to control their budgets and hiring. Over time, if schools are given more autonomy, more savings may be realized, he said.

“It seems like they are clearly moving in the right direction,” he said. “If they’re looking at how they can send more dollars to schools by shrinking the central office, it does seem like dollars can be best spent at the school level where they can have the most impact on students.”

Several board members were elected in 2012 promising to offer more autonomy to schools. This plan moves toward that vision, board member Gayle Cosby said.

“It speaks to a lot of goals of the board, reorganizing in a way that is less top down with more resources to schools,” she said.

New faces in key roles

The board on Tuesday approved Toneysha Amos for the new job of director of innovation and transformation, a key post in the new administrative structure. Amos was an academic coach in Greensboro, N.C., where Ferebee formerly was a regional superintendent. Legrand is also a former Greensboro regional superintendent.

Amos’s job, Ferebee said, will be to coordinate services for “priority schools,” those that have been persistently rated D or F or have shown low growth.

Outside hires at the top of the organization can give the district new perspectives, said board member Michael Brown. Brown is the board’s lone holder from a once solid majority who regularly supported White in debates over the district’s future.

“When you bring in fresh blood, they’re not wedded to anybody. They can actually assess the talent,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of great people in the district, but a lot are in the wrong seats on the bus.”

Another former Greensboro educator appears headed to one of the district’s most troubled high schools.

Ashauna Short, a Greensboro assistant principal, was hired by the board Tuesday and will take the helm as principal of John Marshall High School.

The school for grades 7 to 12 nearly faced state takeover in 2012 before the Indiana State Board of Education agreed to try White’s reform plan instead. The school’s test scores are among the lowest in the state and it’s middle school passing rate dropped last year after the new plan was put in place.

Tough choices ahead

IPS is headed for tough financial decisions when it begins work on next year’s budget in the spring. Last year, interim Superintendent Peggy Hinckley revealed that IPS faced a $30 million structural deficit. She undertook her own cost-cutting effort, including layoffs, but dipped into reserve funds to balance the budget.

Hinckley said matching IPS’ revenues and expenses to avoid future deficit spending would almost certainly require several school closings as early as 2014.

The district is also undergoing a review of it’s operations by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, due early next year, aimed at finding additional ways to save money.

There are reasons to believe IPS could be far more efficient, Harris said.

“If you look at the overhead of the central operations of the mayor’s charter school office,” he said, “and the results they get from those charter schools, it suggests you can get good results with less overhead.”