IPS At-Large School Board Race

Survey: Mary Ann Sullivan argues charter-like autonomy would benefit IPS schools

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Mary Ann Sullivan, who was elected to the Indianapolis Public School Board in 2014, is expected to be named board president Friday.

Chalkbeat asked the 10 candidates running for an Indianapolis Public School Board to answer a survey about their positions on  issues facing the district and its students. Below is one response. If you want to see how these answers compare to other candidates, please visit our interactive election tracker at in.chalkbeat.org/ipselection2014.

Mary Ann Sullivan was a Democratic member of the Indiana House of Representatives from 2009 to 2012, serving an Indianapolis district. In 2012, she unsuccessfully ran for an Indiana Senate seat. As a member of the House, she was often the lone Democrat voting in favor of school reform bills, such as the expansion of charter schools and an overhaul of teacher evaluation. She is seeking an at-large seat on the IPS board and running against Annie Roof, Ramon Batts, David Hampton and Josh Owens.

1. Do you support the direction of the school district under Superintendent Lewis Ferebee?

Maybe.

What, if anything, do you like about Ferebee’s leadership of the district? What would you change?

My experience with Dr. Ferebee has been limited, but my impression is that he is a thoughtful, collaborative, optimistic and strategic leader. I hope that he continues to keep an open-mind to new ideas and not fall back into a more conventional posture as superintendent.

2. Do you believe the operation of IPS’ central office is efficient?

No.

What is your opinion of the efficiency of IPS’ central office operations? How much money should be spent outside the classroom on high-level district operations?

My personal experience has been that the IPS central office does not operate efficiently. The recent Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce/IPS report, 2013 Operational Analysis, makes several recommendations aimed at improving real estate, information technology, human resources and financial management efficiency. I support a central office designed to be responsive to school needs, rather than to manage schools from downtown.

The amount of money spent outside the classroom should be driven by school needs, and should not be limited to direct services from central administration.

3. Should the school district partner with charter schools?

Yes.

Do you support the House Bill 1321 “innovation network” law? What is the ideal relationship between the district and a charter school operator?

Yes, I testified in support of House Bill 1321 during the last legislative session.

Any relationship between the district and a charter operator would be entered into first and foremost to benefit students. It would be a true partnership, with clear roles, responsibilities, expectations, transparency and accountability on all sides. Ideally, successful practices developed in such a relationship would be shared with other interested schools.

4. Do you support the state’s voucher program?

No.

If yes, why do you support vouchers? If not, would you propose ending it?

Although I voted against establishing the state’s voucher program as a state legislator, I would not work to end it as an IPS board member. My focus on the IPS board will be to improve the district and create more high-quality IPS schools. I will direct my time and energy to ensuring that IPS provides the right conditions for school success: adequate resources from the state, autonomous schools, strong school leaders and effective teachers, healthier environments for children, better family and community engagement, more efficient operations, a culture of collaboration, support for innovation, etc.

5. The district is moving toward more partnerships with outside groups like The Mind Trust and Stand for Children. Do you support stronger partnerships with school reform organizations?

Yes.

If not, why not? If yes, what would you envision those partnerships with charter school organizations look like?

I would welcome partnerships with any outside groups dedicated to improving educational opportunities for children in IPS. I would support real partnerships, where all parties have a stake and a role in decision-making. We need to come to an understanding that we are all working toward the goal of providing students with the best educational opportunities possible. I believe those opportunities can and should be in IPS, but we cannot reach that goal if we are more worried about a school type than serving students.

6. Teachers haven’t received a pay raise in several years. What budget changes, if any, would you support to make this happen?

Good teachers deserve to be paid well or we will continue to lose them. We need to restructure the compensation model to expand the impact of our best teachers. Since teacher salaries and benefits make up about 90 percent of the IPS general fund expenditures, it is clear that options for increasing pay are limited under current conditions.

In the near term, I would make sure the district is operating at peak efficiency in all other budget areas and apply any savings towards the classroom. I would advocate for increased education funding from the state, and I would engage teaches in developing new models for compensation.

7. What percentage of a teacher’s performance evaluation score should be based on student test score growth?

I am a proponent of adopting the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) or a TAP-like system in IPS. TAP is a system that improves teacher quality by providing educators with multiple career paths, and aligns professional development with instructional practice informed by data on student performance. Teachers are compensated based on their performance within that system. In this type of system, the exact percentage that student growth should play in teacher performance evaluations should be determined by the teachers, but should be significant enough to drive informed instructional practice focused on student achievement.

8. The state takeover process has been scrutinized recently. What’s your proposal for how to improve schools that have been rated an F for six straight years?

I don’t believe in one-size fits all solutions, but I would say that any efforts to turnaround, restart or otherwise address persistently failing schools must involve better family and community engagement from the start. Within the school, there must be strong leadership, a clear mission and purpose, shared values, high expectations and a no-excuses attitude toward student success.

9. Ferebee has identified 11 low-performing priority schools to receive extra support and resources. What is your vision for how to improve IPS’ low-performing schools?

As a proponent of autonomous schools, I do not have a single vision for improvement. Rather, I believe that certain conditions need to exist at the school level in order for low-performers to improve. Extra support and resources must be responsive to the needs of the adults and children in buildings, and not imposed upon them from the central administration.

10. What is your vision for how schools within the district should be governed? What role should principals and their assistants have in leading schools?

I support maximum autonomy and flexibility at the school level, in return for accountability for results — a more charter-like relationship between individual schools and the district administration.

11. What didn’t we ask? Tell us about your platform, or another issue you’re passionate about.

I firmly believe that IPS could be the best urban district in the country, if the board and superintendent can take full advantage of the positive education synergies the Indianapolis community has to offer. This is a historic time for the district. The board needs individuals who have the experience, understanding and courage to make this happen.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana’s push to raise teacher pay is creating some unlikely allies

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Middle school math teacher Eliana Moore, left, gives Armando Flynn, 13, some extra attention to help with a lesson in algebra.

It’s not every day that the state’s teachers union, Republican leaders, and education advocacy groups find themselves working toward the same goal. But this year, as Indiana puts teacher pay at the forefront of its legislative priorities, there seems to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to make it happen — and that means some unlikely allies.

During Tuesday’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, House Speaker Brian Bosma announced in a speech to fellow lawmakers that Republican Reps. Bob Behning and Todd Huston — as well as representatives from the Indiana State Teachers Association, advocacy group Stand for Children, and the educator organization Teach Plus — were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget.

“The most important profession for the future is those that serve in our classrooms,” Bosma said, adding that although the state has made increases over the past few years in school funding, pay for teachers has not kept pace even as administrative spending has increased.

It’s an unusual partnership because the teachers union has frequently had tension with Republicans who favor school choice and expanding the state’s charter school and private school voucher programs. The union, which staunchly advocates for traditional public schools, has also clashed over charter partnerships with districts, a model that Teach Plus and Stand for Children have supported, even though they aren’t inherently partisan.

Why now? The combination of local districts struggling to hire teachers and keep them in the classroom and a larger national conversation about teacher compensation has put raising teacher pay in the spotlight, both in Indiana and across the country. Last week, teachers in Portage, Indiana, picketed to push for larger raises as they negotiate a new contract.

“It’s been a crisis that’s been coming — we’ve seen it coming … and finally people are starting to connect the dots between compensation and retention,” said Teresa Meredith, president of ISTA, the state’s largest teachers union. “We finally had to take a step back and say, obviously fighting each other is not getting anything done.”

Meredith said state-driven policies that have led to more testing and dialed up the need for schools to compete for students naturally has resulted in increased spending on staff members who aren’t in the classroom. Now, she said, lawmakers are seeing how that’s affecting school budgets, and, in turn, making it difficult to attract and retain teachers.

The desire to figure out ways to keep teachers in the classroom also brought Teach Plus to the table, said Rachel Hathaway, program manager for the national organization’s Indiana arm. Teach Plus helps train teachers to be policy advocates.

“There is a moment happening this year that can bring folks together to really elevate the profession and support teachers to make sure they are able to stay in the classroom,” Hathaway said. Teach Plus has “a history of knowing the importance of teacher recruitment and retention and ensuring we have high-quality teachers in front of our students.”

And it’s that impact at the classroom level, Stand for Children Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller said, that speaks to his group’s mission. Stand is an organization that aims to help parents learn how to advocate for their children in schools, but the group has been criticized, such as during the recent Indianapolis Public Schools board election, because they do not have to disclose their spending.

“At the end of the day, data shows one of the most important single factors in children’s education is the educator at the front of the room,” Ohlemiller said.

Indiana’s plans for how to boost teacher salaries are expected to come into sharper focus over the next few weeks. But Bosma cautioned again Tuesday that there might not be much extra money to work with, casting some doubt on the state’s ability to raise pay enough to make a meaningful difference for educators across the state.

“We’re going to have more needs, more critical needs, than we have available dollars,” Bosma said.

Bosma wouldn’t offer details about how much money House Republicans would add for teacher pay, but said after funding obligations to the Department of Child Services, that state would have an optimistic $50 million per year in new revenue for other funding requests. If teacher pay were to receive just a piece of that, it would be far less than the $81 million per year or so that Senate Democrats have called for — which they figure would amount to a 5 percent raise for teachers and counselors over the next two years.

And if curbing teacher shortages is as much of a priority as the state’s majority is now pushing, state Democrat leaders say, Indiana needs to prove that come January by making it a meaningful part of the budget.

“We have the resources,” Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, said on Friday when his caucus presented its 2019 priorities. “We can make that sacrifice to make sure our teachers know we respect and appreciate them.”

cry for help

View from the child care trenches: ‘Those of us cleaning the poop are not making it’

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

At the end of three hours of briefings Monday on advancing care for Illinois’ tiniest residents, an on-the-ground provider’s 3-minute plea shook awake a gathering of the state’s top early childhood leaders and reminded them why they were there.

“We are in a crisis and unable to get help,” said Holtz, who in seven years has cycled through 147 staff members at her two day care centers in south central Effingham.

Turnover in that time among her 35 employees has been enough to staff the two centers more than four times over.

Speaking to the early learning council that directs how the state funds services for children from birth to age 5, Holtz said half of those departing sought better-paying jobs in other fields. Others headed to public school districts that pay better. Some she let go.

“Down here in the trenches, those of us who are cleaning the poop and plunging the toilets — we’re the ones who are not making it,” said Holtz, ticking off how well-intentioned Illinois directives make it tough to run a childcare business. She listed state policies like raising degree requirements for jobs that pay $8.50 to $10.25 an hour in her area, an endless stream of “health and safety” trainings, and lead and radon tests that cost her $1,000 apiece.

In a meeting that focused mainly on future ambitions, Holtz redirected attention to a present hazard: a critical shortage of qualified staffers to work in infant centers, daycare programs, and community-based preschools.  

The issue threatens to undercut any sort of universal pre-K program, which governor-elect J.B. Pritzker pledged to pursue as a candidate.

Preschool expert GG Weisenfeld said Illinois meets many established early learning benchmarks. But the state lags in salary parity. Other shortcomings: a revolving door of the state’s top leadership in early learning and a lack of full-day programs.   

“For preschools housed within public schools, those teachers have salary parity with other teachers,” said Weisenfeld, the lead author of a new state preschool policy scan from the National Institute for Early Education Research. “Unfortunately, when programs are housed in community-based centers, those teachers do not.”

But the state’s powerful Early Learning Council barely touched on that topic at its quarterly meeting Monday.

Holtz, one of only two people to address the council, said she drove several hours from Effingham for her three minutes at the mic. She said she supports the state’s push for better quality, but that effort doesn’t pencil out for her and other caregivers. One state subsidized program for low-income families reimburses her only $23 per day per child. That’s not enough to pay a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree.

“When we do hire them, they uniformly all leave for better pay and benefits — and less stress. The stress is up there with the reasons for leaving, along with pay.”

As Illinois focuses on raising the quality of early learning throughout the state by requiring bachelor’s degrees for lead teachers in preschools, it faces a conundrum: Teachers with college degrees want to and can earn more than minimum wage elsewhere. (A 2017 state report said the median hourly wage for a licensed childcare center teacher was $12.50. Assistant teachers and infant caregivers generally made less.)

Jill Andrews, another downstate center director who heads up the Southern Illinois Child Care Assistance Task Force and made the trek with Holtz, handed out folders with her own set of recommendations.

Among them: raising state reimbursement rates for publicly funded child care programs, helping child care providers qualify for state health insurance, and offering community college credit as an incentive for workers to pursue training.