Six critical questions the IPS school board race will answer

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For the second consecutive election cycle, the Indianapolis Public School Board race has broad implications that could alter the district’s trajectory.

Two years ago, the election tilted the board for the first time toward a brand of reform it had flatly rejected in the past: cooperation with businesses and conservative groups pushing more autonomy for schools and a total rethinking of how the district is managed.

Will changes to the board this fall bring a stronger connection to that flavor of reform? Or will the election steer the district toward a reconsideration of, and possibly even a step back from, the direction it has forged since the last election?

In 2012, three new board members who won seats broke up a steadfast majority which consistently supported former Superintendent Eugene White and his policies. Within days of taking office, a new board majority forced White out and soon began moving IPS toward positions that were previously unthinkable.

One example: IPS is now seeking partnerships with charter schools, whereas White had promised an all-out campaign to stop more IPS kids from enrolling in them.

But new divisions have emerged on the board and the election has helped push a further ideological realignment.

Here are six critical questions the election Nov. 4 will answer:

Will reformers take over the school board?

Four 2012 winners — Caitlin Hannon, Sam Odle, Diane Arnold and Gayle Cosby — called for similar changes in IPS and were expected to drive a somewhat coordinated agenda for the district.

All four backed reform ideas touted by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education reform group, and outside groups like Stand For Children and Democrats for Education Reform rallied around them. In 2011, the group proposed a deep cut in administrative spending, more autonomy for schools and an expansion of preschool.

But the alliance has not remained intact.

On some issues, such as ousting White, those four have joined with school board President Annie Roof and board member Samantha Adair-White.

Roof has sided with the reformers more often than Adair-White. To the surprise of even some of her campaign contributors, Cosby has sometimes allied with Adair-White and Michael Brown in opposition to changes favored by the rest of the board. That group has been increasingly cautious about partnerships with charter schools or outside groups promoting change in the district.

Candidates challenging Adair-White and Brown, however, are strongly aligned with the reformers. If former IPS board member Kelly Bentley defeats Adair-White and charter school dean LaNier Echols ousts Brown, the new board would have at least five members who are strongly aligned in favor of reforms favored by The Mind Trust, Stand for Children and others.

Can board President Annie Roof survive a five-way dogfight to keep her at-large seat?

Perhaps the most interesting race this fall is for an at-large seat held by Roof, the board president.

Roof has widely been viewed as in danger of losing her seat since high profile former state Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan, a national board member of Democrats for Education Reform, announced she was exploring a run for Roof’s seat. Sullivan has strong name recognition and a track record of success winning votes in the city. But the race has turned out to be more complicated than a showdown with Roof.

Three other candidates have joined the contest — Butler University business professor Josh Owens, Light of the World Church Pastor David Hampton and former IPS employee Ramon Batts.

Splitting the vote five ways could make it tougher for any one candidate to capture a majority. It makes it possible, for example, for a candidate to win with a lower vote total, even less than 50 percent. That could make the race more competitive and, perhaps, give Roof a better chance for survival.

Will the longest serving board member keep his seat?

Brown has served on the board for more than a decade and is the lone remaining holdover from the solid coalition that mostly backed White’s decisions when it held a majority until 2012.

Since then, Brown has remained a skeptic of reforms offered by The Mind Trust and other outside groups. He has opposed IPS layoffs and allied with the district’s teachers union on some issues.

Brown is an active volunteer at Northwest High School, which is the centerpiece high school in his Northwest Indianapolis district.

Seeking to unseat him is Echols, a former teacher who came to IPS through Teach for America and now serves as an administrator at a charter school.

The critical question for Echols is whether she can appeal to rank-and-file IPS parents and voters who have supported Brown through the years. She will need to persuade skeptics of school choice that a charter school employee can be an effective IPS board member.

Will Mary Ann Sullivan and Kelly Bentley be returned to public office?

Both Sullivan and Bentley gave up their last elected offices without seeking re-election. The school board is the road back to public life.

Sullivan gave up her Indiana House seat in an unsuccessful bit to unseat state Sen. Brent Waltz. Republican Waltz won re-election by a comfortable six-point margin.

Perhaps more surprising was support for Waltz from the Indiana State Teachers Association, which is usually a reliable supporter of Democratic candidates. But ISTA officials were disillusioned by Sullivan’s support in the legislature for Republican education bills, such as those that initiated a charter school expansion and changes to teacher evaluation in 2011.

Bentley left the IPS board in frustration, choosing not to seek reelection in 2010 after 12 years in office and frequent clashes with White. But Bentley told Chalkbeat in July she was more optimistic about the district’s opportunity to change under the current school board and Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Incumbent Adair-White’s re-election campaign is just getting off the ground, as she waited until the Aug. 22 filing deadline to decide to seek her seat again. James Turner, another former IPS employee, is also seeking Adair-White’s seat on the board.

Will 2014 be a high-dollar campaign like 2012?

The last school board campaign was groundbreaking for how well-funded the successful candidates were. Cosby raised more than $75,000, Hannon more than $65,000 and Odle more than $55,000. Those are huge amounts for a local school board race in Indiana. In the case of Cosby and Hannon, some of their support came from wealthy patrons of school reform in other states. Groups pushing for change in IPS, such as Stand for Children, gave considerable support to both, too.

Stand For Children and the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce have already endorsed Sullivan, Bentley and Echols, signaling that similar support could follow them this year. Both Sullivan and Bentley also are strongly connected to influential Democrats who support education reform nationally.

The teachers union for IPS and its parent group, ISTA, were not major contributors to candidates in 2012. That could change this year. Roof, Brown and Adair-White are expected to court union support and traditional Democratic voters.

Will the board emerge with any active IPS parents as members?

The two IPS board members with children who attend IPS schools — Roof and Adair-White — face stiff challenges to retain their seats. Additionally, Brown’s son graduated from IPS just two years ago.

If all three were defeated, it would leave the board void of any parents with children in the district, or who have recently had children attending IPS schools. Whether that is a concern for voters remains to be seen.

NOTE: Contribution figures for candidates in the 2012 races have been updated to reflect the most recent information available.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”