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New IPS board has big moves in mind

IPS will give bonuses to many support staffers and administrators. But AFSCME Local 661 has not ratified the contract.
IPS will give bonuses to many support staffers and administrators. But AFSCME Local 661 has not ratified the contract.
Scott Elliott

Newly elected Indianapolis Public School Board members say they will quickly push for new strategies next year as they join a like-minded school board and superintendent with big plans to improve Marion County’s largest and most challenging school district.

They aren’t yet saying what those strategies will be. But Kelly Bentley, a former three-term board member who will return in January after defeating Samantha Adair-White, hinted they would be big.

“We’ve got to stop tinkering around the edges about what needs to happen in IPS,” said Bentley, who will return to the board after a four-year hiatus. “We need to let school leaders and teachers run their schools and do what is in the best interest of their kids.”

At least one board member who was defeated said he is so worried about the district’s future under the new school board that he plans to take an active “watch dog” role as a citizen observer of the new board.

“I’m absolutely concerned,” said board member Michael Brown, a four-term incumbent who lost to political newcomer LaNier Echols in District 5 on the Northwest side. “I’m thankful to see (board member-elect) Kelly Bentley who, has historical perspective on the district, in there, at least. Hopefully she won’t allow them to repeat some of the mistakes we’ve had in the past.”

Moving from the campaign to governing

Based on their campaign rhetoric, voters can expect the new board members will aim to make good on promises to pare down the central office beyond reductions Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has made and give principals even more freedom to make decisions for their schools on their own. The district also would appear much better positioned to forge partnerships with advocacy groups and charter schools with less opposition to those ideas going forward.

Those are the types of changes that Bentley, former State Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan, Echols, a charter school dean, said they envisioned during a race that saw them easily unseat three incumbents in a landslide election Tuesday.

Brown is skeptical of their motivations, and those of the deep-pocketed supporters who spent thousands to push their campaigns. That included well-funded local organizations that favor more aggressive reform in IPS, like Stand For Children and the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, two groups that poured money into an most expensive IPS school board election through contributions to the winners and through their own, privately funded campaigns.

Brown said he got five mailers at his home advocating for Echols in the final days of the campaign. Combined, the three winners outspent the sitting board members by more than 16 to 1.

“To be completely honest with you, this election was not about education or the issues,” Brown said. “It was an advertising campaign and the advertisers won. The people that went to the polls voted and the selected who they wanted. But when you ask for change, you should know if you are changing for change’s sake or changing for the better.”

Those who backed the challengers strongly believe the change will be for the better.

“We’re thrilled,” said Chamber president Michael Huber of Tuesday’s outcome. “We think all the pieces are in place: a strategic board, a collaborative superintendent and a statutory framework that provides the board and superintendent so many tools to improve schools.”

Others, like the district’s teachers union president Rhondalyn Cornett, want specifics about what the new board will propose.

“I’m still kind of in shock,” Cornett said. “I’m sad that none of the incumbents made it, but I’ve always tried to be collaborative and I hope (the new members) come with that attitude toward us. All three that won said they want what’s best for students and teachers. They talked about teacher pay and teacher working conditions and I’m going to hold them to that. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. I’m just hoping we’ll be able to be collaborative and respectful.”

A more collaborative tone?

The election’s result means disagreements between board members, like a meeting last week over a Teach Plus contract which turned into a shouting match, should be less frequent. Current board members Sam Odle, Diane Arnold and Caitlin Hannon all are sympathetic to the winning candidates’ ideas.

“I’m excited about getting to put into action some of the things that we’ve talking about doing, existing beyond the rhetoric,” Hannon said.

Gayle Cosby is now the lone board member who has been wary of outside partnerships with reform groups like Teach Plus, The Mind Trust and others. But she said she is hoping for a good working relationship with the new board members.

“As long as everyone is working toward doing what’s best for kids I think we’ll continue to move in the right direction,” Cosby said. “I hope that media and the public continue to apply a certain level of scrutiny to the decisions that are made in hopes that they are indeed what’s best for children and not paying back organizations that chose to fund candidates this election season.”

A mostly aligned board doesn’t mean improving the district’s schools will be easy, Stand for Children executive director Justin Ohlemiller said.

“While I believe that having candidates who have similar views and values will make things easier, I want to make sure we’re recognizing the tremendous challenges we have,” Ohlemiller said. “We have a long way to go.”

It’s not just their fellow board members who are waiting to hear more about what the new board has in mind. It’s also the district’s teachers.

“IPS teachers are kind of scared,” Cornett said. “They’re wondering, ‘what’s the agenda of the school board?”

Listening, planning comes first

Board members said they want to see the new school board create a strategic plan with a series of milestones for what it will aim to accomplish in its first few months. That should help reduce worries of those who fear change will come too quickly, Bentley said.

“The problem with changing too fast is you can cause instability,” Bentley said. “Nobody wants to destroy the district. We have a big job ahead just to communicate the kinds of things we want to see happen.”

Sullivan said the rest of the new board members have a lot to learn in the upcoming months. They are planning to host “listening sessions” for the public to share their ideas in early December.

“I’m very eager to have those conversions,” Sullivan said. “There’s a ton of work to be done and I’m going to be spending a lot of time and energy on getting up to speed.”

But Arnold said the school board can’t wait too long before it makes big moves. There’s another election in 2016, she said, which could bring even more changes on the board.

“Two years will be here before you know it,” Arnold said. “I don’t intend to run again. There could be three new board members. It’s an ever-changing climate. We’ve wasted way too much time with micromanaging and doing small things when we should have been looking at the big picture.”

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