Mar. 19—Indiana school boards will have to allow public comment during their meetings, and they also must allow comment prior to final action on agenda items, based on legislation approved by the 2022 Indiana General Assembly.
"Public comment must be accommodated," said Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association.
The new legislation was the result of some districts temporarily suspending public comment periods in the wake of contentious school board meetings.
It was among many issues debated in what some describe as an intense, and exhausting, 2022 legislative session.
ISBA began the session tracking 140 bills related to K-12 education, school board governance, and child-related legislation. In the end, 35 bills were enacted.
"It was an intense session — a sprint from start to finish, where they never really slowed down," Spradlin said.
The session will probably most be remembered for what didn't pass, he said.
The list of controversial proposals that died includes divisive concepts and curriculum transparency mandates; partisan school board elections; mandatory referendum revenue sharing with charter schools; distribution of harmful materials and removal of legal protections; and, the reduction or repeal of the business personal property tax, a significant revenue source for local governments.
Some of that can probably be attributed to political dynamics and disagreement within Republican leadership and caucuses, Spradlin said. But another reason was extensive grassroots advocacy involving a range of people and groups including citizens, educators, associations, civil rights organizations and the teachers union.
Regardless of the reasons some of the most contentious legislation died, "We're going to count our blessings and consider it a good session for public education for some of the things passed, but also some of the things that did not pass," he said.
Citizen voices must be heard at school board meetings
Two complementary bills address citizen concerns about school board accessibility and transparency. House Bill 1130 requires a board to allow those physically present to comment; Senate Bill 83 says the board must take public comment before final action is taken on an agenda item.
The bills, signed into law this week, also allow school boards to have "good discretion on managing the meetings," Spradlin said, including the ability to set time limits as well as a maximum amount of time dedicated to public comment.
School boards also can take "reasonable steps to maintain order ... including removal of any person willfully disruptive," the legislation states. The legislation take effect July 1.
Currently, while board meetings must be open to the public (unless it is an allowable closed session), "patrons never had the right to comment," Spradlin said. Typically, Indiana school boards have allowed public comment.
The new legislation changes that. "Boards can't suspend public comment," Spradlin said.
State Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, said he's heard many complaints from parents the past year about school board accessibility and transparency, and it became an issue at the Legislature. "We had to spend a lot of time on trying to decide how parents can get more access to school boards," he said.
Ford said he received a lot of complaints recently with regard to a vote taken by the Vigo County School Board that re-affirmed an earlier decision to close/repurpose an elementary school; a board member had asked the board to vote to rescind the initial decision.
"They voted the issue and then took public comment. I think many in our community think it should be public comment and then you vote," he said. Senate Bill 83 addresses that concern.
An 'exhausting' short session
Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer, president of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, described the 2022 General Assembly as "an exhausting short session. It really didn't have to be this way," she said. "It is very frustrating for us as public education advocates to have to spend this time fighting terrible legislation when everyone is feeling so exhausted from the pandemic and suffering the effects of it."
Rather than listening to public school educators about what their needs are, the General Assembly started off with such legislation as the HB 1134/SB 167, the so-called divisive concepts bills, "which were based on a premise of distrust and disregard for educators," she said.
ICPE rallied members and supporters who came from throughout the state to testify at committee meetings.
"It is really obvious that Hoosiers love their public schools and came out in droves to show that support," she said. "We'd like to see our Legislature do the same to support our public schools."
Keith Gambill, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said, "I think it was clear through the way we built community coalitions there was an overwhelming resistance to some of the language put forward as it relates to schools."
He hopes the takeaway for lawmakers "is that our communities are very proud of the work their schools are doing and schools should be locally controlled, with less overreach from the state." Family concerns as it relates to a student's education are best served at the local level, Gambill said.
Among the bills sought by public school advocates was Senate Bill 2, which addresses school funding issues from fall 2021 related to students on quarantine and learning remotely due to COVID.
"We were able to make sure schools don't lose funding for kids" that had to use eLearning because of COVID and quarantines, Ford said.
Indiana law says schools get less funding — 85% — for students who receive instruction online more than 50% of the time. A student's status is usually determined between the start of the school year and what's called the ADM count date — which this year was Sept. 17.
SB 2 addressed the problem by allowing the DOE to look at attendance for the whole semester.
Ford again authored a bill with a provision that would have required districts to collectively bargain class size, health and safety matters, and teacher preparation time with a teachers union.
"We had more discussion than we've had in the past about collective bargaining rights," he said. The bill got a hearing but did not advance. He plans to continue focusing on the issue in future sessions.
He described the 2022 session as "more of a defensive year; I think we were able to block some bad policy on education from getting votes. I think that was a positive."
Deciding how long people can speak at school board meetings should be left to local school boards, he said. He voted against HB 1130 because he believed it became "too micromanaging" of local boards. He supported SB 83.
Also, "I think some of the talk about teachers posting curriculum seems like it was a duplicate of what is already there with these curriculum committees," Ford said.
State Rep., Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, said the recently concluded legislative session "was one of the most controversial sessions that I have been through."
On the education front, the most notable bills were the ones that did not pass, she said.
"Overall, we spent a lot of time focusing on legislation that would limit what a teacher can and cannot say in the classroom," she said. "Instead of focusing on outcomes that would improve student performance or address the critical teacher shortage, we spent weeks without dealing with the issues actually affecting our schools."
There was a lot of effort focused around House Bill 1134, the divisive concepts bill. Thousands of emails were sent to the Statehouse, mostly against this bill, which ultimately died.
HB 1134 "would not have benefited students or teachers," Pfaff said. "I believe we need educational legislation that focuses on how to recruit and retain teachers, counselors, and all the support staff that are needed to provide Hoosier children with the best education we can offer."
Keeping school boards non-partisan was another bill that did not pass. Twenty people testified against the bill in the elections committee and not one person was in support. "Parents don't want more politics on the school board or in our schools," she said.
One of the positive highlights of the session was passage of House Bill 1045, which increases the amount that a person can give to a 529 college savings account from $5,000 to $7,500. The 20% tax credit maximum would increase from $1,000 to $1,500.
"As the cost of higher education continues to increase, I believe that it is critical that our 529 program keeps pace and helps all Hoosiers save for future educational expenses," she said.
—Legislation passed that allows school districts to hire adjunct teachers, viewed by some as one way to help alleviate the teacher shortage. School corporations could issue permits for full- or part-time adjuncts.
Prospective adjuncts would have to have at least four years of documented occupational experience in the content area in which they intend to teach. The legislation doesn't require teaching experience.
Adjuncts would not be subject to collective bargaining, prompting the Indiana State Teachers Association to describe it as a union-busting move. Adjuncts could not provide special education instruction.
—As part of House Bill 1093, no letter grades will be assigned to schools for the 2021-22 school year as part of the A-F accountability system, based on this spring's ILEARN scores.
The Indiana Board of Education is working on implementing a new data dashboard for accountability that will ultimately replace the current A-F system once it's implemented, Spradlin said.
—HB 1093 also has a provision that could limit schools to three eLearning days if they aren't at least 50% synchronous, or real-time, live instruction.
If a district provides real-time instruction for at least 50% of the eLearning day, that day can count toward the required 180 days of instruction.
If the learning day is less than 50% real-time, the district can only use them for three days of eLearning toward the 180 day requirement; the rest would have to be made up or a waiver would be required from the state Department of Education.
Educators learned during the pandemic that going to completely virtual education in spring 2020 and in 2020-21 lead to learning loss, Spradlin said.
Asynchronous education might involve pre-recorded lectures that aren't live or students retrieving assignments from a learning management system.
"There is no replacement for the impact of a high-quality teacher providing direct instruction to students," Spradlin said.
Meeting the 50% live classroom instruction requirement might pose a difficulty for some districts, he acknowledged.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at email@example.com Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.