Politics & Policy

Mary Ann Sullivan, former legislator, poised to become new IPS school board president

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.

The Indianapolis Public School Board has been transformed since 2012 by outsiders pushing changes but former state Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan could be the first one to be picked as board president.

Sullivan said she’s interested in the job, and none of her fellow board members has yet emerged as a potential challenger. The new president will be named at Friday’s organizational meeting to begin the new year.

“I’ve expressed an interest in that role,” Sullivan said. “We’ll see how things go. I’ve been working on a lot of these issues for a long, long time. … I’d be very interested in playing a larger leadership role.”

Sullivan, a Democrat who sometimes bucked her party by supporting charter schools and other reforms was defeated in a run for the Indiana Senate in 2012 but then won a school board seat in a landslide in 2014.

“It requires somebody with a lot of skills in diplomacy,” said board member Kelly Bentley, who served as president during a prior term on the board. “I think (Mary Ann) will do a good job of that.”

The board has not yet chosen or publicly discussed as a group who will serve as the next president. But Chalkbeat interviewed several board members, and none expressed interest in leading the board or knew of any other members who planned to throw their hats in the ring. The field is also narrowed because four of the seven board seats are up for election this fall, and some members are reluctant to choose a president who will be on the ballot.

Serving as board president is a significant commitment, said board member Sam Odle. He had expressed interest in the position in past years, but he is no longer looking to be board president, he said.

Although Sullivan is relatively new to the IPS board, she is a political veteran and long-time advocate for education reform, dating to her time as an IPS parent. As member of Indiana House of Representatives, she was known for supporting policies like accountability and school choice.

The board has gotten a complete overhaul thanks to the well-financed and highly contested elections of 2012 and 2014 — six of the seven members now consistently support education reform proposals such as school autonomy and innovation schools.

But Sullivan would be the first of the newly elected members to lead the IPS board. The current president, Diane Arnold, is supportive of the same reform efforts but pre-dates the latest push for change. She was elected in 2004, before the board shakeup. The shift would be largely symbolic.

“(Mary Ann) represents some of the changes the board majority has made clear that we want to move toward,” Bentley said.

The board has demonstrated strong support for district plans such as reducing the central office, increasing freedom for principals and partnering with outside organizations to manage some schools. The next year could be politically volatile, however, because four seats are on the ballot this fall.

What isn’t clear yet, is who will for run those seats — whether incumbents or challengers — and which races will be the most competitive. The board members up for election include Odle, Arnold, Michael O’Connor and Gayle Cosby.

Keeping on experienced members will help the board pursue its goals, said Odle, who is planning to run again.

O’Connor — who joined the board this fall, after Caitlin Hannon left the board for a Mind Trust fellowship — said he is thinking carefully about whether he has the time to run for reelection or serve another term on the board. He expects to decide within the next couple of months.

Arnold and Cosby did not respond to requests for comment.

Because the election is non-partisan, there is no primary and the filing deadline is not until Aug. 26. The election is Nov. 8.

Cosby won her seat in 2012 with the help of significant funding from organizations that support reform, including the Indiana chapter of advocacy group Stand for Children, the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and Indiana Democrats for Education Reform.

But as a board member, she has sometimes opposed policies favored by reformers, particularly plans to partner with outside organizations to manage IPS schools. With her seat up for election, some of those who helped her win last time could work against her reelection.

Executive Director of Stand for Children Indiana, Justin Ohlemiller, declined to discuss whether the group will support Cosby or endorse another candidate this early in the year. But he shared an email from a Stand parent-leader criticizing Cosby.

“Each school board member that decides to run again will have a record, and they’ll have the opportunity … to talk about their record with the parents in the organization,” he said. “Gayle will have that opportunity as well as other incumbents.”

taking initiative

Parents, students press Aurora school district to pass resolution assuring safety of immigrant students

A reading lesson this spring at an Aurora family resource center. (Kathryn Scott, The Denver Post).

As a mother of four U.S.-born schoolchildren, but being in the country illegally herself, Arely worries that immigration agents might pick her up while she is taking her kids to school one day.

But what worries her more is that her children could be picking up on her fears — and that it might hurt their focus in school. She’s also concerned for those immigrant students who could be at risk for deportation.

“There are a lot of us who are looking for the security or reassurance from the district — most of all, that our children will be safe,” said Arely, who spoke on the condition that her full name not be used because of her immigration status.

Dozens of Aurora students and parents, including Arely, are pressing the school board of Aurora Public Schools to adopt a proposed resolution for “safe and inclusive” schools that they say would help. While the Denver school board adopted a similar resolution in February, their peers in Aurora have yet to act.

“Knowing that Aurora doesn’t yet have a resolution makes me feel insecure,” Arely said.

A district spokesman said in an email the resolution won’t be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, on Tuesday, but that it would be “part of the Board’s open dialogue.”

“Anytime the Board is contemplating a community request, the Board first openly discusses their interest in a public forum,” spokesman Corey Christiansen said. “If there is interest, the Board would decide to move forward at a future meeting to issue a statement.”

Two board members reached for comment Wednesday — Dan Jorgensen and Monica Colbert — both said they supported the resolution.

“I believe that not only do we have a legal obligation to serve all students, more importantly, we have a moral obligation to make sure that all of our students are in safe and inclusive environments,” Jorgensen said. “This resolution is about doing the right thing, including providing a public statement of support and directing reasonable action on behalf of all children in our schools.”

Colbert said not supporting the resolution would deny the strength of the district’s diversity.

“In a district like Aurora where our biggest strength is our diversity, for us not to adopt a resolution such as this would be not well serving of our students,” Colbert said.

The document presented by parents and students would direct the school district to ensure officials are not collecting information about the legal status of students or their families, that they keep schools safe for students and families, and that a memo the district sent to school leaders in February gets translated and made available to all families and all staff.

The memo outlines the procedures Aurora school leaders should follow if interacting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at a school.

The resolution also calls for district officials to write a plan within 90 days for how to react if an immigration enforcement action prevents a parent from picking up a student from school.

The parents and students started sharing concerns at end of last year after President Trump’s election stoked fears in immigrant communities.

Working with RISE, a nonprofit that works with low-income parents to give them a voice in education issues, the parents and students researched other school district resolutions and worked on drafting their own.

“We didn’t want any words that seemed as if they were demanding,” Arely said. “We just want equality for our children.”

Anjali Ehujel, a 17-year-old senior at Aurora Central High School, said she has seen her friends suffering and worried a lot recently. The most important part of the resolution for her was making sure her fellow students were no longer so distracted.

“This is important because we all need education and we all have rights to get education,” Ehujel said.

Another student, Mu Cheet Cheet, a 14-year-old freshman at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, said she got involved because she saw other students at her school bullied and depressed as they were teased about the possibility of being deported.

“For refugees they would just watch because they didn’t know how to help,” Cheet said. “When I came here, I also wanted to feel safe.”

Cheet, who came to the country as a refugee from Thailand seven years ago, found that working on the resolution was one way she could help.

More than 82 percent of the Aurora district’s 41,000 students are students of color. The city and district are one of the most diverse in the state.

“We really hope APS approves this resolution given it’s the most diverse district in the state,” said Veronica Palmer, the executive director of RISE Colorado.

Here is the draft resolution:



FINAL Resolution to Keep APS Safe and Inclusive 4 21 17 (Text)

maybe next year

Senate Republicans kill bill that would have taken broad look at public education in Colorado

Students at Vista PEAK Exploratory in Aurora work on a math assignment. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

A Republican-controlled state Senate committee spiked a bill Wednesday that was meant to spark a broad conversation about the future of Colorado’s public schools.

Some lawmakers hoped House Bill 1287 would help sell voters on raising taxes to better fund the state’s schools. But the Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs committee voted 3-2 along party lines to kill the legislation, which would have created a series of committees to examine the state’s education laws and make recommendations for changing them.

Republicans objected to the bill because they didn’t want to create more bureaucracy, and they thought it was a ploy to raise taxes.

The bill’s demise was a defeat for a group of the state’s most authoritative lawmakers on education policy. It was one of the top legislative priorities for state Reps. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican. Both serve of the state’s budget committee and rallied lawmakers around the bill.

Rankin called the bill the most important of his legislative career.

“I’m bitterly disappointed, although it was expected,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to give up. We’ve worked for over three years to move this idea forward. We thought we built a bipartisan coalition that was interested and wanted to help. We thought we were making really good progress.”

Hamner also expressed dismay over the bill’s death.

“To die quietly like that in Senate was really, really surprising and disappointing,” Hamner said. “Do we still have a need to establish a vision for the future of our kids? Yes. Apparently we’re going to have to do that without our Senate majority.”

Last-minute amendments brought by state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, to address Senate GOP leadership’s concerns could not save the bill.

Supporters of the bill said the legislature needed to step in to help rethink Colorado’s education landscape holistically, not with piecemeal legislation. The state’s laws are outdated and clash with 21st century expectations, they said at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Our current collection of policies and laws have failed to keep pace with changes in expectations of our education system,” said Mark Sass, a Broomfield high school teacher and state director of a teacher fellowship program, Teach Plus. “We need a deliberate and collaborative conversation in our state, as to our vision of education.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he supported the goal of the bill. His name was listed as a sponsor when the bill was first introduced. But he said he eventually concluded the bill was the wrong approach.

“I’m not sure this is the solution to get us there,” he said. “It’s time for us to take a bottom up approach. I get nervous about standing up and staffing and financing another government program.”

After the committee hearing, Sass said Republican lawmakers failed to realize their unique role in Colorado shaping statewide education policy. The state’s constitution gives no authority to the governor, the education commissioner or the State Board of Education to create a strategic plan.

“We need someone to drive this conversation,” he said. “If the legislature won’t, who will?”

Priola said in an interview that he had hoped for more time to lobby Senate leadership and members of the committee. Instead, he said he’d try again next year.

“We live in a state with 178 school districts and thousands of schools,” he said. “There can’t be one way of doing things, but there also can’t be 1,000. There has to be some commonality on what we’re doing and what direction we’re heading.”

Rankin was less committed in trying again next year.

“I want to think about,” he said. “I don’t think this elected, term-limited legislature with the background they come from can develop the kind of leadership needed for this movement.”

The death of House Bill 1287 puts another bipartisan piece of legislation on shaky ground.

House Bill 1340, sponsored by state Reps. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, would create a committee of lawmakers to study and make changes to the way Colorado funds its schools.

The state House of Representatives was expected to hold its final vote on that bill Wednesday morning. But Democratic leadership pushed the vote by a day.

Some Democrats in the House saw the two bills as a package, while Republicans in the Senate saw them as competing. With partisan rancor flaring in the waning days of the session, House Democrats could return the favor and kill the finance study bill.

Rankin, the House Republican, said he hoped his chamber’s leadership would let the finance study bill move forward. He introduced a similar bill two years ago but was unable to get the bill through the legislative process.

“I think it’s a good idea to take a hard look at school finance. Maybe we can get some dialogue going,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers still need to think about a strategic plan for its schools.

Hamner, the House Democrat, said she also supported the finance study.

“I think their bill will be just fine,” she said. “Unless the Senate decides to kill it in State Affairs.”