Election 2016

As election nears, Republican challenger looks to distance herself from Bennett and Ritz

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Glenda Ritz and Jennifer McCormick debated in Fort Wayne during the 2016 campaign this past fall.

With just weeks before Hoosiers will be asked to elect the next Indiana schools chief, Republican candidate Jennifer McCormick is trying hard to distinguish herself.

But now, her objective appears to not only be convincing voters that she is different from her opponent, incumbent Democrat Glenda Ritz, but that she represents a break from the divisive Republican whom Ritz unseated in 2012 with strong grassroots support from teachers who opposed many of his major initiatives, such as expanding charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private school tuition.

“I am not Tony Bennett,” McCormick said at today’s debate in Fort Wayne. “I stand on my own proven leadership.”

READ: Find more on this year's races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.
READ: Find more on this year’s races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.

During her campaign, critics of school choice measures like charters and vouchers have repeatedly accused McCormick of having the same education goals as Bennett. It doesn’t help that groups that fueled Bennett’s rise have donated heavily to her campaign.

But the Yorktown superintendent has had mixed success convincing die-hard Bennett critics that she’s not like him, despite holding policy positions that are more like Ritz’s than like Bennett’s on several major education issues.

The similarities between McCormick and Ritz deepened during the debate as they offered more detail about their visions for school A-F accountability grades, preschool and some aspects of state testing.

Both candidates agree that school A-F grades should be used in tandem with other information about student progress, not just on their own to label or punish schools and districts. Ritz said she is already working to update the system at the state level to make this a reality, and McCormick said she supports using new federal law to make that happen.

“I welcome that,” McCormick said. “One grade does not tell the story of a building. One grade does not tell the story of a district. It has to be multifaceted.”

Read: Both candidates for superintendent agree A-F grades for schools are too harsh

They also support voluntary universal preschool by 2020, although their process for getting there is a bit different. While Ritz would roll out the concept more quickly with a goal of providing 25 percent of Indiana 4-year-olds with access in the first year, McCormick would begin by focusing on expanding the state’s existing pilot program, which targets children from poor families.

Ritz said just focusing on poor children isn’t enough when so many children don’t have high quality preschool as an option, regardless of income.

“We cannot afford a program where students are going to be winners and losers,” Ritz said.

Read: Ritz and McCormick agree on Indiana’s need for more preschool — not on how much to spend

One major difference between Ritz and McCormick is their stance on what Indiana should do to change its state ISTEP test. While they differ in their preferred structure, both said today that they supported getting rid of the state’s separate third-grade reading test if those skills could be measured in another way — something McCormick has not specified until now.

Read: State superintendent candidates want to kill ISTEP but differ on what should come next

But at the same time, McCormick is working to convince voters that she would be a better manager than Ritz, who she says lacks leadership.

The focus of McCormick’s campaign has been to emphasize her administrative skills from her years as a principal and superintendent. She pointed out that Ritz’s first term included a variety of snafus with testing and federal funding — evidence, McCormick says, that she can’t handle the administrative role of state superintendent.

Yet Ritz said she’s managed to make significant improvements to Indiana education despite roadblocks thrown up by Gov. Pence and the state’s Republican super-majority legislature. She highlights that she has coordinated increased on-the-ground support to turn around struggling schools so they can improve their state ratings, as well as work she’s done to bring more respect and resources to teachers in the classroom.

“I didn’t need anyone’s permission at the statehouse to serve children,” Ritz said. “Despite the political attacks that were going on.”

During the debate, McCormick simultaneously chastised Ritz for extending political tension over education issues, but reignited it by distancing herself from Bennett. She said if she’s elected, those tensions would end — although it’s hard to know if lawmakers will be more cooperative with her given the differences in some of their policy positions and the political nature of the job.

“It’s very frustrating to listen to, once again, that it’s political issues,” McCormick said. “That’s the problem. Eight years of political issues have to stop.”

The debate will be broadcast in Indianapolis on WFYI 90.1 Public Radio at 8 p.m. tonight and on WFYI 1 Television at 7 p.m. Sunday.

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:

At-large

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.