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Outside groups gear up for 'pivotal' IPS school board race

Three seats on the Indianapolis Public School Board that are on the November ballot have attracted 10 candidates.
Three seats on the Indianapolis Public School Board that are on the November ballot have attracted 10 candidates.
Scott Elliott

Outside groups that are aiming to influence how Indianapolis Public Schools is run are gearing up to push for candidates who best fit their philosophies to be elected from among a crowded field seeking three seats this fall.

That could prompt the district’s teachers union, which has been skeptical of some ideas to change IPS, to break recent tradition and endorse candidates in the race, a union official said.

The stakes are high for a board that, since 2012, has leaned more in favor of reform ideas like giving schools more autonomy and forging partnerships with charter schools. Two of the more stringent skeptics on the board — Michael Brown and Samantha Adair-White — face opponents who are more in line with the board’s majority on those issues.

“This is a pivotal point in IPS’ history,” said Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce vice president Mark Fisher. “There’s a real chance to change the trajectory of the district. It’s a positive thing that we have so many candidates running.”

The Indianapolis Chamber, which has in the past criticized the district for being inefficient with spending its money, has already endorsed former Democratic state Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan, ex-school board member Kelly Bentley and LaNier Echols, a charter school dean, from among 10 candidates. All three support accountability-based school reform ideas.

Sullivan and three others are challenging IPS school board President Annie Roof. Bentley and fellow challenger James Turner are taking on incumbent Adair-White, and Echols will run against Brown, the longest serving board member. (For more on the three races, go here.)

Fisher said the chamber has long thought the board needed people on it with stronger management skills, but that was made more clear this year when new Superintendent Lewis Ferebee announced the district did not actually have a $30 million deficit in 2013 as projected by former superintendent Eugene White.

In fact, IPS had a $8 million surplus and Ferebee said it appeared the extra money had been intentionally obscured by inflated budgets in the past.

“For IPS to fix its academics, it can’t constantly be putting out operational fires,” Fisher said. “Our leadership felt strongly we needed new representation so we went through the process of identifying, vetting and endorsing three candidates.”

For instance, he said, Bentley was an early leader at IPS in calling for more transparency in governance on the school board. She often got into arguments with White, such as when he refused to turn over documents related to the district’s budget.

Sullivan, who formerly worked for the chamber and serves on its council for education, has a “proven record at the Statehouse,” Fisher said, supporting ideas like school choice and test-based accountability. Sullivan was often the lone Democrat supporting school reform bills, such as those to expand charter schools and toughen teacher evaluation rules. She left her seat in the House in 2012 for an unsuccessful run at the state Senate.

The chamber became interested in Echols, Fisher said, because of her experience teaching at two IPS schools through Teach for America and her experience as an administrator for the charter school Carpe Diem.

“We understand where people might feel like she might just be for charters, but she’s proven to us she wants to strengthen the traditional school system in Indianapolis,” Fisher said.

Four years ago, the board slowly began to move toward change with the surprise election of Roof and Adair-White. Both were critical of many of the White’s policies, but he maintained a solid four-member majority, including Brown, who consistently supported him. Most of the complaints of Roof, Adair-White and board member Diane Arnold were ignored.

But in 2012, three new board members were elected — Caitlin Hannon, Sam Odle and Gayle Cosby. All of them campaigned in favor of changing the district and within a week of taking office they ousted White, who agreed to a buy out.

Since then, board alliances have shifted and remain unsteady. Hannon, Arnold and Odle are the strongest advocates for most reforms, usually joined by Roof. Brown and Adair-White have often been aligned in asking skeptical questions and sometimes voting against changes the majority supports. Cosby has confounded some of the reform groups who supported her in 2012 by sometimes supporting the majority and sometimes joining the skeptics.

Stand for Children, a school reform organization that advocates for change within IPS and supported Hannon, Odle, Arnold and Cosby in 2012, said its advocacy arm also plans to make its endorsements soon.

Spokeswoman Kate Shepherd said the organization is working to contact candidates and ask them about their positions on various issues. A committee will then decide the endorsements.

IPS’s teachers union typically doesn’t make official candidate endorsements, said Ann Wilkins, an Indiana State Teacher’s Association director who advocates for IPS. But that could change for this race.

Wilkins said she remembered a time when school board races drew candidates who would raise anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 to support their candidates. But in the 2012 IPS school board race, candidates raised as much as $65,000, sometimes from organizations with no official ties to the community. For example, board member Caitlin Hannon a received $10,000 donation from people including from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“If you’re a grassroots person, you can’t afford to compete against that,” Wilkins said. “It’s just different now. The teachers union doesn’t have money to help a campaign like that. If we say we’re going to endorse someone, we’ll get out and do phone banks.”

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