The Indianapolis Public School Board will vote tonight to choose its own leader, but board members are being tight-lipped about who they’re voting for.
The uncertainty of who will be the next board president is reminiscent of 2013: Once again three newly-elected board members with big changes in mind are taking office.
Should the new leader be one of the newcomers or one of the holdovers?
The new president will take over for Annie Roof, who was ousted in an expensive, landslide election last fall along with two other board members. Whoever is chosen as her replacement will play a prominent role as the voice of a new board that seems eager to explore new ideas about how the district’s schools should be run.
Board members have talked about who should follow Roof, but nobody wants to say publicly if any of the options have the four votes necessary to win the job.
“I really am not comfortable getting ahead of the vote,” said board member Diane Arnold. “Whatever happens, we need to unite and we need to start focusing on moving forward. I don’t want (choosing) board leadership to be an impediment to work.”
In 2013, Sam Odle — a former hospital CEO — suggested himself for board president when he was newly elected along with Caitlin Hannon and Gayle Cosby. Instead, the board chose Arnold, a holdover who had been been re-elected.
Arnold then led the board during a trying year during which it voted to buy out former Superintendent Eugene White’s contract and the district grappled with a budget crisis.
Arnold said she would be willing to step into the role if she was asked.
“I will tell you that a few people have asked me if I would be willing to do it,” Arnold said. “There’s been times I’ve been blindsided. It’s really not a comfortable process. You’re asking people to vote for people to be leaders that only have briefly spoken to each other.”
Few others seemed willing to share their thoughts about who they thought would take over this year.
“I can’t tell you,” said Kelly Bentley, who took back her school board seat after this fall’s election against IPS parent Samantha Adair-White. “I know who I’m voting for.”
Odle said he is willing to be president if asked.
“I’m willing to fill in where the total group comes as a consensus on,” Odle said.
Both Bentley and former State Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan, who defeated Roof for her citywide seat, said they had no interest in the position themselves — at least not now. Sullivan said she didn’t want to put her name in the ring just yet because she doesn’t feel like she knowns Ferebee well enough.
“I wasn’t interested, but never say never,” Sullivan said. “Having someone who already has a rapport with the superintendent from the get-go is really important.”
The role of school board president can be a contentious one, Bentley said.
“It’s not an easy role to play because they’re responsible for leading meetings, appointing people to committees and being the liaison between the board and administration,” said Bentley, who served on the board for 12 years until 2010. “It’s a difficult balance because it’s hard for them to have independent opinions when they’re trying to make sure everybody has the opportunity to be heard.”
It also comes with an opportunity to wield power over decisions — or even reverse what’s already been done.
Within weeks of a new school board taking over in 2013, board members overturned a decision previously approved by the board, replacing White’s ambitious preschool expansion plan with a more modest effort.
This time, former school board president Roof put back on the agenda an already approved contract with teacher leader group Teach Plus that she had voted in favor of a week earlier. On the re-vote, held just before the election, the contract was rejected.
The board also voted down a proposal to open up a new, autonomous IPS school from a pair of Mind Trust fellows, with the defeated board members voting no just before their terms expired.
The new board is expected to overturn both those decisions with new votes early this year.
Board relations among some members were tense during the lead-up to the election, with one meeting even erupting into a shouting match between board members.
Sullivan said she hopes the new IPS board will have much more consensus moving forward.
“I hope we can be very adult and civil,” Sullivan said, “and break the mold of education boards in Indiana.”