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Mind Trust fellowship debate clouded by politics

Low scoring schools, like School 93, could be overhauled next year with ideas from The Mind Trust fellows, who are currently developing ideas to design their own autonomous schools.
Low scoring schools, like School 93, could be overhauled next year with ideas from The Mind Trust fellows, who are currently developing ideas to design their own autonomous schools.
Scott Elliott

Will an election help determine which $100,000 fellowship winners the Indianapolis Public School Board picks to try to reverse the fortunes of a troubled school?

That was the question tonight for a school board that has quickly become embroiled in election year politics.

The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis school reform group, offered the money in the spring, suggesting the fellowship winners could take a year, refine their ideas and then offer to IPS new reform models they could choose to use to overhaul some of their lowest rated schools.

In June, four winners were announced: Heather Tsavaris, Lauren Franklin, Marlon Llewellyn and Earl Phalen.

But earlier this month, board President Annie Roof, who has four challengers for re-election on Nov. 4, said the district didn’t have adequate input into The Mind Trust’s selection process. Mind Trust officials denied that claim, but Roof questioned whether the partnership should even continue.

Tonight, Roof thought ahead to the decision planned for January, after the newly elected board is installed, to pick which of the fellows’ reform ideas should be used in an IPS school. The board can chose all, some or none of the proposals under its agreement with The Mind Trust. If not picked by IPS, the fellows are free to try to offer their ideas elsewhere, such as at charter schools or with other school districts.

Instead, Roof wants the board to decide in December. That way, current board members who are not re-elected could have a say in the decision.

“There’s a chance it might not be the same people voting in January,” she said.

Seven candidates are challenging three incumbent board members: Roof, Michael Brown and Samantha Adair-White. Roof has the most competition, including former Democratic state Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan. The filing deadline to declare candidacy in the race passed on Friday, setting the field for November.

Board members debated the idea of a delayed vote, but deferred a decision to a future meeting.

Board member Sam Odle disagreed with Roof. Anyone on the school board in January would be ultimately responsible for the innovation fellows’ schools so they should be the ones selecting them, he said. Odle’s term has more than two years remaining.

“We would be voting on schools for the fall of 2015,” Odle said. “That would be the board that would be accountable for those schools. I think hopefully everyone still feels the fellows program is a good thing.”

Adair-White, who faces two challengers on Nov. 4, said the decision about who runs an IPS school should be made by the board members who understand the history of the agreement with the Mind Trust.

“We’re the ones doing the leg work,” Adair-White said. “If (the new board) doesn’t like what this board decides, they have a right to change it. I’m not worried about the election.”

Roof told board members tonight she would meet with The Mind Trust, which was not represented at tonight’s meeting, along with Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and board member Gayle Cosby to try to resolve her concerns. The agreement would allow for the selection of more fellows in 2015 and 2016.

The board will hold a retreat Thursday morning and their regular board meeting Thursday night.

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