By JEROD CLAPP
> SOUTHERN INDIANA —
Native son Tony Bennett cut his teeth in Southern Indiana classrooms before ascending to the position of Indiana’s education chief, acquiring a reputation as a brazen reformer along the way. His brashness might have paved the way for his downfall.
On Thursday, Bennett, who voters ousted as Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction in November, swiftly resigned as Florida’s education commissioner amid allegations he changed the grades of a charter school in Indiana with ties to a deep-pocketed Republican donor.
Now Bennett’s reform efforts lay in tatters, while educators who worked alongside him in Southern Indiana attempt to pick up the pieces. The allegations against Bennett and his administration left some focused on the future of Indiana’s education landscape, while others expressed frustration with the A-F grading scheme — which state legislators ordered to be rewritten this year — Bennett left behind.
“I didn’t agree with the system to begin with,” Frank Denton, president of the Greater Clark County Schools Education Association, said. “We lobbied against that and went to meetings to talk against the labeling on kids and schools. Now, to see that manipulation took place, it’s hurtful. It’s something that teachers are irritated about.”
Accusations of changing the grade of Christel House Academy, a public charter school whose owner, Christel DeHaan, heavily donated to Bennett’s campaign, have left teachers and administrators thinking hard about the state’s A-F grading model.
For the district’s first day of school, Denton said he covered a lot of ground visiting buildings to inform teachers about benefit offerings from the union. But he said in each of the schools he visited, the subject teachers touched on most was Bennett stepping down in Florida.
“The teachers are all talking about it and I don’t think anybody liked the grading system to start with,” Denton said. “For this to come out that there was finagling in the system, it’s just unfair to schools that needed the help. We’re still trying to keep up with $300 million that was taken away from public schools that are struggling to make ends meet in a lot of cases.”
As legislators begin to digest the reports about Bennett over the last week, state Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, said the whole situation could cast a negative light on the state’s A-F grading system.
But he and his office are looking for more information to see whether the change Bennett’s team made — from a “C” to an “A” — benefited other schools in a similar fashion, or if Christel House Academy benefited unfairly.
“Suffice to say, perception matters,” Clere said. “This incident as reported can’t be ignored. At the same time, though, it’s important to keep it in context and I want to know more.”
But as detractors to the system may look to circumvent the grading system, Clere said he hopes his colleagues will keep their focus on making schools better for students.
“I hope we’ll continue to see legislation that supports kids,” he said. “I continue to be frustrated that education is such a political issue. I’d like to continue to find ways to bridge the gaps and make it less political.”
But part of that has to lead to a school grading system that makes sense. With processes that confuse even educators, Clere would like to see a formula that experts and laypeople can use to come up with the same result every time.
“I support the concept of the A-F rating system because it’s an easy to understand system,” he said. “I’m very open to the ongoing discussion about refining and improving the methodology that it’s as fair and consistent as possible. This is just part of that discussion, which was already going on before this news report came out.”
David Rarick, transportation director for Southwest Allen County Schools in Fort Wayne, said he worked with Bennett while they both served at the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp. in 2001.
But outside of their administrative jobs, he said he and Bennett are good friends. While the accusations he faces are severe, Rarick said he doesn’t think Bennett’s intent was as menacing as the reports seem.
“I don’t think he did what people are saying he did, I don’t think that was the intent,” Rarick said. “The intent was to look at the model. It was one of these things where if this is the grade, something is wrong with the grading system and it has to parallel with the system.”
Brad Snyder, deputy superintendent for New Albany-Floyd County schools, was also contacted but declined to comment.
Travis Haire, assistant superintendent at Greater Clark County Schools, also did not return phone calls for this story.
Calls were also made to Bennett’s office, but were not returned before the announcement of his resignation.
Clere said as his team continues to investigate the effects on other schools, he hopes the model won’t suffer by legislation that could reverse it.
“I want to know what the broader impact of the change was and maybe look at some other schools and try to understand more about what happened,” Clere said. “But I do think it comes back to what I said earlier about keeping our focus on the system itself. We need to have a system that is designed to promote maximum accountability and transparency at every level.”
Denton said he’s not sure what direction the grading system will take in the state now, but he hopes students won’t suffer from any negative repercussions.
“I’m disappointed for education in general that it happened,” Denton said. “For Mr. Bennett, I’m disappointed that the whole thing happened this way. I’d like to do away with the system, but then to have an educator do this, it’s disappointing. I don’t know what to say.”