Despite its branding, the Purdue Polytechnic High School system is a completely separate entity from the University. As a charter-school system, it receives nearly all of its funding from the state.
That funding goes toward paying its staff’s salaries and all other school activities.
Now standing as the sole Purdue employee in the system, Head of Schools Scott Bess’s salary in 2019 was $202,806.28. He stays on the University’s payroll to provide some influence from Purdue on the school’s direction.
Bess, a Purdue math alumnus, had previous experience organizing charter schools, and he guided Purdue through the process of designing and submitting the PPHS charter application. When it was time to select a formal leader, he was the shoo-in candidate.
“My job is to act on Purdue’s behalf and to look at where we take the high school next,” Bess said. “It’s kind of the equivalent of a school superintendent, but it’s different in that most superintendents run a system that already exists and isn’t going to grow or expand. In my case, I’m building what will become a statewide network.”
Purdue President Mitch Daniels first envisioned PPHS’s original Indianapolis charter school in 2016 as a way of raising the enrollment number of high school graduates from Indianapolis Public Schools.
So far, the PPHS system has two schools in Indianapolis and an upcoming location in South Bend. Its master agreement with the University allows it to use the Purdue name and offer graduates direct admission to the Polytechnic Institute, but the University does not make any cash subsidy to support the salaries of any of its staff.
Another staff member, Margaret Howard, was on the Purdue payroll in 2019, but Bess said that she has since been switched to the high school payroll.
Bess said that in traditional public schools, major sources of funding are based on the school corporation’s number of students and a portion of its district’s property taxes. PPHS technically has no district, so its sources of funding are even more minimal.
The school currently receives about $7,000 per student from the state, he said. Bess also said that the schools avoid costs by not managing their own utilities. To do that, they avoid using public school buildings, which means they have to pay rent on the facilities.
Low enrollment leads to financial issues, which Charter School Capital, an organization that provides support to charter schools, states in a press release on its website is the most common reason charter schools fail.
Last year, five charter schools closed in Indianapolis alone, according to the Indianapolis Star. Charter schools’ survival depends on their ability to spread their costs out among their per-student funding, so enrollment is key.
A statement given by South Bend community member Cathy Fuentes at an Indiana Charter School Board public meeting shortly before the new campus was approved last December indicates that good enrollment numbers early on are also critical for public perception.
“I have deep concerns about expanding (PPHS) to South Bend when they clearly have not fulfilled their enrollment or promise in Indy,” Fuentes said. “The responsible thing to do would be to see that the school in Indy has fulfilled its promises first before further expansion.”
PPHS has been able to thrive in its early years mostly because of philanthropy.
Before the first school opened, PPHS had donations from the Mind Trust as well as a $1.25 million grant from the Fairbanks Foundation. The grant and donations allowed the schools to pay key staff members a full salary with benefits during their planning year, even though the school was not actually generating any income yet. It also allowed them to hire teachers further in advance, giving them more time to develop lesson plans for the upcoming year.
Bess said that PPHS has received other significant donations from philanthropy groups such as the NewSchools Venture Fund, Charter School Growth Fund and the XQ Institute. Those groups tend to be attracted to charter schools they see as innovative, which Bess attributes to PPHS’s STEM-focused and project-based learning curriculum.
Receiving donations has benefited the PPHS in a few ways, allowing them to avoid going into debt and paving the way for continued expansion. The donations also allow it to pay staff an extremely competitive salary.
“Because we had such a significant amount of philanthropy, we actually pay our teachers above what most of the surrounding school districts pay,” Bess said. “If IPS gets a bunch of money from local taxpayers, we’re able to match that even though we don’t have (property tax income).”
The master agreement requires one third of PPHS’s board to consist of Purdue faculty, meaning that non-Purdue board members still occupy a majority. Bess said he hopes those numbers can be self-sustaining in the future.