The Indianapolis Public Schools Board is starting the new term with a few unknown faces but perhaps the biggest mystery is a returning player.
After a bruising fight for control of the board, candidates aligned with the current administration won in a landslide, with one exception: Elizabeth Gore beat incumbent Sam Odle. But why she won — and whether she will stand against a board that is reshaping the district — is uncertain.
Gore is well known in the community, and she previously served on the board. But she lost her seat in 2012, when pro-reform advocates captured control. Even Gore is uncertain what was different this time around.
“I’d like to think, ‘What was that magic thing I did?’ ” Gore said. “But my way of doing things is the same. … My message is always the same.”
The election landscape, however, was a bit different. For the first time in recent years, candidates who have pushed for aggressive change — from partnering with charter schools to giving principals more independence — faced organized opposition in the battle for control of the board. A loose network of critics formed OurIPS, a grassroots group that partnered with Concerned Clergy to endorse and campaign for a slate of challengers.
Despite those efforts, every one of the candidates OurIPS backed lost on Election Day.
Instead, pro-reform candidates won an almost complete victory with the support of groups such as Stand for Children Indiana. A parent-organizing group that wages well-financed campaigns for its slate of candidates, Stand only suffered one loss in November, Odle’s defeat by Gore.
Gore, however, isn’t easily placed in the sides that were drawn in the race. Although she is sometimes critical of the administration, she was not endorsed by OurIPS and she did not run an explicitly ideological campaign. She raised about $1,200 during the race, a fraction of $25,626 Odle had raised in October.
Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand, said voters showed their strong support for changes in the district by electing most of the candidates the group endorsed. But he wasn’t sure what lessons to draw from Gore’s victory.
“I take at the end of the day those ballots being counted on Election Day to be a message,” he said. “But what that message is, I don’t know.”
It is also possible that Odle, a retired healthcare executive, was a particularly weak candidate. He faced criticism ahead of the election for serving as a board member for ITT Educational Services, a for-profit college that filed for bankruptcy last month following severe federal sanctions.
For Chrissy Smith, an IPS parent and active member of OurIPS, Gore’s victory is encouraging because it shows even people without much money can win. If critics of the administration are able to field candidates who are better known and respected in the community, she said, they have a stronger chance of winning future elections.
Smith is holding out hope that as a board member, Gore will be a dissenting voice who opposes the administration’s efforts to create innovation schools. Innovation schools, which are considered part of IPS but are managed by outside partners, are one of the most controversial pieces of the board’s agenda.
Gore shares some concern over the rapid expansion of innovation schools. But she does not see herself as an adversarial force on the board.
“I think when coming on the board, I have the thought process of agreeing to disagree,” Gore said. “Nobody agrees on everything all the time.”
OurIPS was defeated in the election, but the people who supported the group won’t be disappearing, Smith said. They are still in the early stages of planning but they aim to get more parents and community members involved.
For now, they want the school board to know that critics are still watching, Smith said. “They may have been voted in but they still have a responsibility to everyone in the district.”
Whether critics are able to sustain their movement and attract more people hinges in part on the outcomes of the district’s dramatic changes. Many of the innovation schools are designed to improve the district’s lowest-performing schools, but the administration does not yet have much evidence that its policies are improving test scores.
Board President Mary Ann Sullivan, who has been a strong advocate for changes in the district, said that if their work starts to pay off, she expects opposition to diminish.
“The best case scenario is that we start seeing more of the fruits of our labors,” Sullivan said. “It’s hard to argue with success.”