An east side school board seat pits a believer against a skeptic of changes in IPS

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Arsenal Technical High School.

This is the first in a series of stories profiling the 10 candidates for Indianapolis Public Schools Board, and their positions on some of the most substantive issues facing the district. In the coming weeks Chalkbeat will profile the candidates for each of the seats up for election. We begin with District One, where Michael O’Connor and Christine Prince are facing off for a seat representing the east and southeast side of the district, which includes Arsenal Technical High School.

For more coverage of the campaign for school board and the state political candidates check out the Chalkbeat election series.

Eastside voters will choose from two names that may be unfamiliar when they vote for Indianapolis Public Schools Board this November. But one candidate is a political insider with experience in city government, while the other is a newcomer to politics.

Michael O'Connor
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Michael O’Connor

Michael O’Connor is an incumbent board member, but this will still be his first time running for a seat because he landed his spot when he was chosen by the current board last year. He filled the vacant seat left by Caitlin Hannon when she resigned to launch a unified enrollment system for Indianapolis students. Currently a lobbyist for Eli Lilly and Company, O’Connor previously served as Indianapolis deputy mayor under Mayor Bart Peterson.

Born in Greenfield, O’Connor has lived in Irvington for 25 years. He has two daughters who attend Catholic school.

Through his work as deputy mayor and with local charities, including the United Way of Central Indiana and the Shepherd Community Center, O’Connor said he has spent years working on education issues in Indianapolis.

“The biggest challenge is the impact of poverty in our neighborhoods,” he said, “We as a school system (must) respond to that poverty by creating opportunities not just for students to be well educated but for their families to be engaged in that education.”

O’Connor’s approach to change is practical, and he is focused on the issues that the IPS board controls rather than the hot button education issues that consume the state — such as how schools are graded by the state or whether families should get vouchers to help pay private school tuition.

“I’m in the reality business,” he said.

Christine Prince
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Christine Prince

Christine Prince is a registered nurse making her first bid for office. A newcomer to politics, Prince said she was inspired to run for school board because she has seen the impact that poverty has on people’s health in the long term, and education is essential to improving children’s career opportunities.

“I was fortunate to come from a family where we were able to go to college, and I’ve had great career mobility from that,” she said. “If we don’t have good public schools here, we are not going to set the foundation for these students to be nurses or doctors or whatever job they want.”

A Virginia native, Prince has lived in Indianapolis for more than two decades. She moved to the IPS district from Wayne Township in August 2015. She is a volunteer with the adult literacy program IndyReads, a member of Indiana Moral Mondays, a coalition advocating for progressive causes, and she has experience teaching nursing.

Prince, who does not have children, said that she has watched the district from the outside for years and has concerns about recent changes such as innovation schools.

“The biggest issue is a lack of community engagement in making decisions or relaying those decisions,” she said. “There’s a lot of change happening very quickly.”

O’Connor and Prince disagree on many of the most pressing decisions the school board could facing in the coming term.

On innovation schools:

O’Connor said he supports innovation schools, which are public schools with charter-like flexibility, as a way to prevent the state from taking over failing schools and as a tool for improving struggling schools.

“We have to change things,” O’Connor said. “We have to develop a system that gives families a high-quality option but also really looks to address the challenges those families are facing.”

Prince said the district should not have innovation schools because she is concerned that their methods are untested, and she does not support working with for-profit managers.

“I believe there are strong schools within IPS, and we could duplicate those,” she said. “I don’t want unproven strategies.”

On Superintendent Ferebee:

O’Connor said the administration has some weaknesses, particularly in its communication, but he is strongly supportive of the work that Ferebee has done cutting the number of failing schools in the district.

“Change is hard. Change makes people upset sometimes,” he said. “Yet, if you look at the educational results, … we are making dramatic improvement.”

Prince raised several concerns about Ferebee’s performance, including his administration’s failure to immediately report a counselor who was accused of abuse. She also said she believes the superintendent is working on behalf of for-profit companies and is too quick to implement unproven strategies.

“I think his loyalties are divided,” she said. “He needs to go.”

On closing schools with low enrollment:

The possible need to close schools is one area where O’Connor and Prince have similar views. O’Connor said that with such low enrollment in some schools, the district must find a way to use those buildings more effectively, either by finding partner organizations to share space or by closing schools.

“In the end, we might have to make some tough decisions about closing schools, and I am not going to predetermine yes or no,” he said. “I know today, we are spending too much on operation and maintenance of facilities that are underutilized.”

Prince said it doesn’t make sense to keep schools open if they are not full because of the costs of running the buildings.

“I would want to make sure that if we did combine schools that we are doing so paying attention to the culture of the schools and to the geographic location,” she said.

On supporting teachers:

Both O’Connor and Prince argue for paying teachers more and taking steps to empower teachers, although their visions diverge. O’Connor said that the district needs to pay teachers better to catch up with some of the suburban districts surrounding IPS. He also supports giving teachers more freedom to teach without interference.

“We need to empower the principals to make decisions at the school based level that allow them to empower their teachers to make decisions at the classroom level,” he said.

Prince said the district needs to pay teachers better, provide meaningful continuing education and recognize them as experts in their fields.

“I would like to see a task force that includes teachers,” she said, “where they have input into what they believe the problems are and what they believe the strategies are.”

Indiana 2016 Election

The biggest donation in the IPS school board race came from an unexpected source

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In the battle for control of the Indianapolis Public School board, the largest single campaign contribution came from an unexpected source: the teachers’ union. But the donation didn’t help the union-backed candidate.

In recent years, IPS board races have been dominated by pro-school reform candidates who have attracted large contributions from deep-pocketed donors. But in other elections — at other times, in other places — it’s common for teachers’ unions to spend big.

That’s what happened this time in Indianapolis.

Critics of the current administration made their first organized bid to unseat incumbent board members in 2016 when they formed the group OurIPS. The group didn’t donate to candidates, but the district-wide candidate the group supported, Jim Grim, did win a $15,000 contribution from the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Despite that cash, all four candidates backed by OurIPS lost on Election Day.

The contribution to Grim’s campaign was revealed in final campaign finance reports due to the Marion County Election Board last week. The disclosures detail fundraising and spending for each school board campaign, but they don’t include groups such as Stand for Children, which sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses but is not required to disclose all of its political activity.

Although the union donation was easily the largest single contribution any candidate received, other candidates did raise more in total. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce spent more overall but gave to four candidates.

Here are the totals for each race:


Grim raised $20,930 during the election. His opponents were incumbent Sam Odle, who raised $31,893, and challenger Elizabeth Gore, who won a surprise victory in the raise. Gore has not filed a finance report, but she told Chalkbeat after the election that she raised about $1,200.

District 1

Incumbent Michael O’Connor vastly out fundraised his opponent in the race, raising $23,543, according to his disclosure. Challenger Christine Prince raised $100.

District 2

Venita Moore, a newcomer who won the seat with support from Stand for Children, raised $25,712. Ramon Batts, who had the support of OurIPS, raised $3,550. Nanci Lacy did not file a report.

District 4

Long-time board member Diane Arnold raised $16,696. Challenger Larry Vaughn did not file a report.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect a new fundraising total for Michael O’Connor, who submitted a corrected disclosure.

day one

Three new members join IPS board, Sullivan elected president

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Five IPS board members were sworn in. Left to right: Elizabeth Gore, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, Diane Arnold, Venita Moore and Michael O'Connor.

Mary Ann Sullivan will lead the Indianapolis Public School board for the second year in a row, bringing a dose of consistency to a board that begins the term with three new members.

At the first meeting of 2017, the seven-member board swore in three new members, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, Elizabeth Gore and Venita Moore, and two returning members, Diane Arnold and Michael O’Connor. In a clear sign of the growing collaboration between the city — which oversees dozens of charter schools — and the school district, the members were sworn in by Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett.

“The decisions you make here profoundly impact not only the students that attend IPS today but … the future of this great city,” Hogsett said. “As our city strives to always better our schools, your individual rules in that effort are critically important to the long-term health and well-being of this city.”

The new board unanimously elected Sullivan as president, O’Connor as vice-president and Gore as secretary. Sullivan, who was also president in 2016, joined the board two years ago as part of a wave of members who support dramatic changes aimed at improving the lowest performing schools.

“I will do my best to maintain the progress that we are making on so many fronts and to keep our sense of urgency,” Sullivan said. “I am very, very confident that this board is ready to provide the leadership needed to transform lives.”

Two of the new board members won spots following a bruising election fight for control of the board between advocates for radically overhauling the district by embracing policies such as partnerships with charter schools and critics who favor more traditional management. The third new member was chosen by the board to replace LaNier Echols, who resigned following the election.

The three newest board members bring a wide range of experience to the board. Here’s a little about each:

Dorene Rodriguez Hoops is the most mysterious new board member because she was chosen by the board to fill a vacancy, rather than going through the election process. She represents District 5, which covers the northwest section of IPS. Although her positions on many of the biggest issues facing the district are not clearly fleshed out, her personal background gives her a unique perspective on many of the issues facing IPS families. A first-generation Mexican American and fluent Spanish speaker, Hoops is the only Latina board member. She also is the only current parent on the board, with a son enrolled at Center for Inquiry School 27. Her son has special needs, and she said her work advocating for his education renewed her commitment to ensuring educational access.

Elizabeth Gore defeated Sam Odle for an at-large seat representing the entire district. Although she is newly elected, this is not her first time on the board. Gore served a term on the board before losing a reelection bid in 2012, when a wave of critics of former-superintendent Eugene White captured control. In her bid for reelection, Gore was not backed by school-reform supporters or the organized opposition, and her victory was something of a surprise. She is a graduate of Crispus Attucks High School and her three children graduated from Arsenal Technical High School, where she led the parent teacher association.

Venita Moore won a three-way race to replace former board member Gayle Cosby, a frequent critic of the administration. She represents District 2, which covers the northeast section of IPS. A business consultant with experience running a state agency, Moore was endorsed by pro-reform groups including Stand for Children. But she does not have a significant record of political work on education, so her approach to the school board is still something of an unknown. Moore is also an IPS graduate, and her daughter graduated from Crispus Attucks High School.