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IPS board president gets tough challengers in hard-fought at-large race

Indianapolis Public School Board President Annie Roof is outnumbered and will all but certainly be far outspent in her bid to be re-elected to a second four-year term on Nov. 4.

Can she survive? And, if not, will her replacement be more or less likely to push big changes for IPS?

Four challengers, some very well-funded, are making strong pitches to replace her:

  • Former Democratic state Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan who is perhaps the state’s highest profile Democrat who favors reforms like charter schools.
  • David Hampton, the pastor of a large church who has ties to some of the city’s school reform leaders.
  • Josh Owens, a Butler University economics instructor with an interest in market-based reform.
  • Ramon Batts, also a pastor, is a charter school skeptic who coaches IPS sports teams.

Roof, a district graduate and parent of three IPS students, said her grassroots campaign will counter the tens of thousands of dollars some of her opponents are spending. Her at-large seat on the board is the only one of three up for a vote this year that encompasses the whole city, not just certain neighborhoods. With five candidates in what is expected to be a low-turnout race, some see the outcome as unpredictable.

In her four years on the board, Roof has walked a fine line between being a full-fledged member of a voting bloc pushing hard for fast and wide-ranging changes in IPS and an occasional skeptic of some of their plans. She’s been mostly supportive of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who so far in his one-year tenure has worked with some of the district’s traditional critics, such as those in the business community, in ways IPS has sometimes been reluctant to do in recent years.

Annie Roof

Annie Roof

“I think that I’m going to reclaim the word reform and call myself a reformer,” Roof said.

Aiming to draw a contrast, Roof said she won’t take out-of-state contributions. She’s raised about $4,200 so far, according to her most recent campaign finance report. By comparison, Sullivan has more than $50,000 and Hampton has more than $20,000. Some of Sullivan’s benefactors are wealthy, and even famous, but not in Indiana — LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and his wife, each gave her $1,000, for example. But most of Sullivan’s contributors are local.

Mary Ann Sullivan

Mary Ann Sullivan

Sullivan shares many of her views about education with Hampton. Both favor the idea of IPS partnering with charter schools. They both have strong ties to the education advocacy community: Sullivan was endorsed by Stand for Children and Hampton has worked with The Mind Trust on education issues. Stand for Children and The Mind Trust both advocate for change in the district.

Sullivan and Hampton also both are pushing for the district to revamp its system for paying teachers and want to see the city expand access to preschool.

Stand for Children’s executive director Justin Ohlemiller mentioned both of the candidates as preferred options in a recent interview with Chalkbeat — but the group only officially endorsed Sullivan.

David Hampton

David Hampton

“It’s a great sign that we’ve got the likes of Mary Ann Sullivan and Dr. David Hampton running to help improve IPS,” Ohlemiller said. “Those are great, high quality leaders.”

But the two have one obvious ideological difference: Hampton sends his child to a private school and favors publicly-funded tuition vouchers that poor children can use to attend private schools. Sullivan voted against creating the voucher program as a state legislator.

Owens is less known to the city’s school reform community, but shares some of the ideology common to that group: he believes students will benefit from stronger connections between IPS and the business community. He argues the business community can better support IPS with stronger connections that provide opportunities for the district’s students.

Owens, who got his start working in analytics and marketing at Angie’s List, said he believes he will push hardest for big changes.

“At the end of the day, the goal is to put more resources in the classroom,” Owens said. “I’m happy to work with whoever feels like they can provide that.”

Josh Owens

Josh Owens

There is one flat-out skeptic of the district’s recent reforms in the race: Batts, who coaches sports teams at Arsenal Tech High School and is a former full-time employee of the district. But it’s not clear his message is catching on, at least with people who give money to school board candidates. He  has raised just $525 for his school board campaign so far, according to his latest campaign finance report.

Batts said he said he’s passionate about the impact that parental involvement can make in kids’ lives. He wants to decrease discipline levels for African American boys, which are higher in the district than other groups of students, and reverse the “school to prison pipeline,” he said.

Batts, who ran for the school board in both 2010 and 2012, opposes partnerships between IPS and charter schools and the idea of creating autonomous IPS schools. He’s also skeptical of the Republican-controlled state legislature, and Ferebee’s friendliness to groups he believes want to dismantle the district.

“This experimenting with our children has to stop,” Batts said. “We have to stop looking at them as seats and dollars. We’ve got to change the direction that education is going in our city.”

Other than Batts, the challengers and the incumbent, Roof, share many viewpoints.

When it comes to some of the reforms Sullivan, Hampton and Owens support, Roof’s voting record shows she’s been helping to usher in changes favored by Sullivan, Hampton and Owens during her term, including charter school partnerships and a cut in the number of administrators in IPS’s central office.

Ramon Batts

Ramon Batts

Roof said she ran for the school board in 2010 in part because of her skepticism of former Superintendent Eugene White’s performance and was seen at the time as a voice for change. She’s usually a part of the board’s now-majority voting bloc that ultimately bought out White’s contract and hired Ferebee.

But that didn’t win her support from Stand for Children or the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, which both chose to endorse Sullivan. Instead sought and gained the support of the Indiana State Teachers Association, which she said sent her a letter endorsing her and promised a contribution of $1,500 for her campaign.

Roof has pushed her view, shared by ISTA, that there is too much standardized testing in schools, and has said she wants higher salaries for IPS teachers.

“Being endorsed by the ISTA brought tears to my eyes,” Roof wrote. “In the last six years they have not been given a raise. Four years have been on my watch. To me, it means that we have been open, and honest with one another.”

The election is Nov. 4. To compare candidates’ thoughts on key issues, visit Chalkbeat’s interactive election tracker. Hear from the candidates yourself at a forum tonight at the Central Library featuring the five at-large candidates starting at 5:30 p.m.