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NLCS Responds to False Reports Made by WISH-TV Channel 8

NORTH LAWRENCE RESPONDS TO FALSE REPORTS MADE BY WISH-TV CHANNEL 8

The purpose of this release is to address the WISH-TV 8 report by Jasmine Minor which aired June 24, 2021. The report involved false allegations of fraud and mishandling of funds by the North Lawrence Community School (“NLCS”) Board of Trustees and its administration. As the entire NLCS community knows, school consolidation presented NLCS with unique challenges during an already challenging 2020-21 school year. NLCS would like to thank our teachers, administrators, students, and families who worked together to ensure that our students continued to grow, learn and succeed in spite of the challenges. Although some are unhappy about the decision to consolidate, the NLCS School Board and administration remain committed to providing NLCS students with improved opportunities that could not have been realized without consolidation. Instead of acknowledging and celebrating the contributions of our hardworking community, WISH-TV 8 sold out to ratings by slandering the integrity and character of the NLCS School Board and administration with false reports. NLCS would like to address WISH-TV 8’s misrepresentations and set the record straight.

FALSE REPORT ABOUT TEACHERS LEAVING

In its report, WISH-TV 8 falsely reported that the NLCS school board saw “a mass exodus of teachers and staff who say they’ve experienced a toxic environment” and falsely projected that more NLCS teachers would be “announcing their resignations at Thursday night’s school board meeting.” During the June NLCS school board meeting, there were 17 certified employees and 17 support staff who announced their resignation from NLCS. A total of 34 resignations. NLCS employs over 850 people. Over the past six years, NLCS has averaged 31 resignations. During the 2020-21 school year, NLCS dissolved the Joint Services Special Education Cooperative, which eliminated several positions within the corporation. Most of the employees who resigned from NLCS participated in exit interviews where they stated reasons for resigning. While there were a few unhappy employees, the majority stated their reasons for resigning were related to higher pay, spouse relocation, moving closer to home, or leaving the profession. WISH-TV 8’s statement that “more NLCS teachers will be announcing their resignations at Thursday night’s school board meeting” was also incorrect. It simply did not happen. To support this report, Jasmine Minor interviewed one former NLCS teacher, Joanna Hackney.

Joanna Hackney is a former NLCS teacher who is unhappy with NLCS personnel decisions made because of consolidation. Ms. Hackney was outraged after she was moved to Oolitic Middle School during the 2020-21 school year after being at Bedford Middle School for the previous 17 years. Many NLCS teachers were asked to move from a building where they had been teaching for many years as part of restructuring because it was in the best educational interests of NLCS students. Most NLCS teachers had a team-first attitude and were willing to sacrifice for the benefit of NLCS students. Ms. Hackney approached school board members directly asking them not to approve it. She asked people in the community to speak on her behalf to NLCS administrators and school board members to change the recommendation and allow her to remain at BMS. Her father accosted one school administrator at his home demanding his daughter remain at BMS and then he ran for school board. For the previous year and a half, Ms. Hackney had been working as a guidance counselor at BMS under an emergency permit issued by the prior administration. Ms. Hackney was not licensed to be a counselor. Ms. Hackney had been a highly effective math teacher and is properly licensed to teach 7th-grade math. NLCS needed her to teach math at Oolitic middle school and NLCS administrators were excited for Oolitic Middle School students to have Ms. Hackney as a teacher. There were other extenuating circumstances that justified NLCS reassigning Hackney to Oolitic Middle School that cannot be discussed publicly.

The NLCS personnel decisions were made through a fair process that accounted for teacher licensure and teacher preference. Before the 2020-21 school year began, each NLCS teacher was allowed to list their top three schools where they would like to teach. Ms. Hackney was not the only teacher who was asked to move from one building to another.

FALSE CLAIM OF MISLEADING DATA

Ms. Hackney also chose to attack NLCS by misrepresenting information relating to consolidation, specifically about Bedford Middle School. She told WISH-TV 8 that she “started looking into the data, and I found that the data that had been presented to the visionary committee and to the school board was misleading data.” The only information she claimed was misleading related to the student capacity data for Bedford Middle School. She stated that the information NLCS provided to the Visionary Committee and the school board “was indicating operation capacities at significantly lower percentages than what were true.” This is not true. Ms. Hackney was not on the Visionary Committee. The Visionary Committee and the NLCS School Board were provided data for classroom capacities using 20, 25, and 30 students per class for each school building. Hackney focused solely on BMS. The actual recommendation made to the NLCS school board was for 25 or fewer students per classroom district-wide. Using 25 students per classroom resulted in a capacity at BMS of 58%. Even with a 20 per classroom limit at BMS, the capacity was only 73%. Furthermore, NLCS did not close BMS. NLCS had to look at the entire school district, not just one school building. The overall capacity for the entire NLCS school corporation was 58.5% at 25 kids per classroom.

FALSE CLAIMS ABOUT FINANCES

WISH-TV 8 also reported that claims of fraud, misleading data, and mishandling of the district’s finances have surfaced. While people did make false claims about NLCS and its finances, WISH-TV 8 failed to identify who made those claims. WISH-TV 8 stated that it relied upon unidentified sources to make its report:

“I-Team 8 has seen several emails sent to the board of accounts, claiming reports of fraud and unethical practice by the district’s school board.”

WISH-TV 8 did not give NLCS an opportunity to respond to these claims before its June 24th story aired. The truth is, there has not been any fraud, misleading data, or mishandling of finances. WISH-TV 8 interviewed one uninformed parent, Eric Johnson, who stated that “[n]umbers weren’t adding up. They were saying they didn’t have the money to run all these outlying schools.” Johnson did not state what he felt was wrong with the numbers, just that they “weren’t adding up.” Johnson does not have expertise in school finance and never asked to meet with NLCS school officials to learn more about the numbers. Johnson’s uninformed opinion is not evidence that there was fraud or mishandling of finances by the school board as suggested by WISH-TV 8’s report. WISH-TV 8 has no supporting evidence. Once again, WISH-TV 8 did not give NLCS an opportunity to address these allegations.

WISH-TV 8 misrepresented that NLCS had committed some fraud and deceit because of an audit being conducted in 2021 by the State Board of Accounts (SBOA). The SBOA conducts audits every two years of all government agencies, including school corporations, in the state of Indiana. And the routine audit being conducted in 2021 was of the finances for the 2018 school year (before consolidation). Once again, WISH-TV 8 did not give NLCS an opportunity to respond to this claim.

WISH-TV 8 reported that when the State Board of Accounts performed its routine audit in 2021, that the district’s books “were not ready,” suggesting that NLCS had done something wrong. However, this statement was used out of context and does not relate in any way to the consolidation process, or the routine audit being conducted by the State Board of Accounts. Prior to the 2019-20 school year, NLCS had been using an antiquated MS-DOS-based financial software and still performing some bookkeeping entries by hand. During 2019, NLCS upgraded the software to a more modern cloud-based financial software. This change and the COVID-19 pandemic required more time to provide the necessary information for the SBOA routine audit. Of course, once again, WISH-TV 8 did not give NLCS an opportunity to respond to this claim.

WISH-TV 8 also misrepresented that NLCS somehow mishandled finances when it issued bonds in 2020 for capital improvements. WISH-TV 8 relied upon Eric Johnson as its only source for this accusation. WISH-TV 8 misstated that the bonds were for 1.2 million dollars. Actually, NLCS issued bonds in the amount of 5.2 million dollars. These funds were used to make improvements at several of our schools, including the installation of turf fields at the BNL football, baseball, and softball facilities. The bond money could only be used for capital projects and had to be acquired during 2020 or else NLCS would have been required to seek a referendum and increase the tax rate later. NLCS could not use the bond funds for teachers’ salaries.

FALSE REPORT RELATING TO NEED FOR NLCS TO CONSOLIDATE

WISH-TV 8 also misreported that NLCS closed five of its schools, consolidating them into three in January 2020. The NLCS School Board closed three elementary school buildings (Heltonville, Springville, and Fayetteville) and repurposed another elementary school building as an early learning center (Stalker). NLCS moved the 6th-grade students back into the elementary schools from the middle schools and reorganized three middle schools into two junior high schools. This resulted in NLCS having one early learning center (Stalker); four elementary schools (Needmore, Shawswick, Lincoln and Parkview); one K-8 building (Oolitic) and one junior high school (Bedford); one high school (Bedford North Lawrence); and one career center (North Lawrence Career Center).

Prior to consolidation, NLCS had ten elementary school buildings within its district, each with less than three hundred (300) students. Heltonville had only seventy-seven (77) students. Six NLCS schools received a state-issued school grade of either “D” or “F” in 2019. Prior to the 2019-20 school year, NLCS was spending over 20% of its budget on operations. The primary cause of this was declining enrollment. The cost of keeping schools open that were well below capacity was not an efficient use of funds and did not provide the best educational opportunities for our students. NLCS has been working to reduce this number below the 15% threshold for operational expenses. NLCS was placed and remains on the Excessive Education Fund Transfer List by the State of Indiana Department of Education. If NLCS did not act quickly, there was a threat that in a few years, NLCS could be in a position to be taken over by the State. This has happened in other school districts. NLCS has now reduced that percentage to approximately 16% and increased salary and benefits by over a million dollars and, because of restructuring the district, will continue to improve.

FALSE CLAIM ABOUT BUS ROUTES

WISH-TV 8 included a completely random and irrelevant claim made by another parent who doesn’t send their child to NLCS. Amber Sciscoe stated that she decided to withdraw her child from NLCS because her child would have a “two-hour bus ride one way.” This was simply untrue. NLCS did not at any point during the consolidation and redistricting process communicate to anyone that a bus route would be two hours. In fact, NLCS assured parents that there would not be any routes longer than those prior to consolidation. The longest bus route during the 2020-21 school year was 60 minutes, which is consistent with past school years at NLCS. Unfortunately, WISH-TV 8 relied upon one parent, whose child does not attend NLCS, to provide inaccurate information. WISH-TV 8 did not even attempt to verify the information. WISH-TV 8 never asked NLCS Superintendent, Dr. Mungle, or NLCS Director of Transportation, Duane Body, about NLCS bus routes.

The June 24, 2021 WISH-TV 8 story about NLCS was irresponsible and lacked journalistic integrity. The report was completely unprofessional. No facts or evidence were used to support the report. WISH-TV 8 failed to offer NLCS a fair opportunity to respond to the claims. The sources that WISH-TV 8 relied upon to support their story were two uninformed parents who do not send their children to NLCS, one disgruntled teacher, and undisclosed emails. NLCS has not committed fraud. NLCS has not used or presented misleading data. And, NLCS has not mishandled finances.

Thank you to all our teachers, support staff, students, and parents for their patience and understanding during an unprecedented school year. We know that this has been a very challenging year for each of you and we want to express our heartfelt gratitude for working together as a team to make this school year a success.