election

PAC tied to Teach For America spends big on a local Indiana election, but no one quite knows why

PHOTO: Kristin Frey/Dylan Peers McCoy
John Fencl (left) and Deitric Hall (right) are running for Washington Township School Board.

It’s a familiar story: A big influx of money is shaking up a school board race in Indianapolis, with tens of thousands of dollars coming from out-of-state school reform advocates.

But this time there’s a twist: The money is going to a candidate in Washington Township, a district with just 11,000 students where there have been few battles in the school reform war.

In a district where candidates typically spend less than $10,000 on even the most competitive races, Deitric Hall, a local teacher, has raised more than $32,000. Nearly all that money is from a single political action committee: Leadership for Educational Equity, a Washington D.C.-based PAC that supports Teach for America alumni running for public office.

It’s a small-scale version of a phenomenon that has played out in urban districts around the country as outside campaign contributions have increasingly influenced pivotal school board races. In Indianapolis Public Schools, outside contributions helped radically reshape the board in 2012 and 2014, when out-of-state funders backed a victory for charter-school supporters.

But unlike in IPS, Washington Township isn’t facing a pivotal election — and Hall’s opponent had raised barely any money until this month. That has raised eyebrows in the area, where locals wonder why LEE, even given Hall’s connection to TFA, would spend so heavily on the race.

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.

A native of California, Hall moved to Indianapolis three years ago for a teaching position through TFA, a national nonprofit that recruits new teachers for school districts with high-needs students.

He landed a position at KIPP Indy Unite Elementary, where he now works with students with special needs. Hall, who doesn’t have children, says his background as an educator will offer valuable insight to the board, and despite being new to the community, he is dedicated to improving the schools.

Hall said LEE’s support for his candidacy does not mean the school reform fight is coming to Washington Township, and he is not in the race to push sweeping changes.

“My intent is to do what’s best for kids,” Hall said. “Does that mean do we need to crash the system and redo it from scratch? No, not necessarily. I think Washington Township is in a good spot. I think that with tweaks it can continue to be better.”

Since LEE launched in 2007, it has trained educators to get involved in local politics and given candidates access to a deep well of cash from national school reform advocates. The Indiana branch of LEE, which like others is heavily funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has contributed to other TFA alumni running for office in Indianapolis.

But Hall is the only candidate the Indiana group has donated to this year, and its donations to his campaign dwarf its contributions to candidates in past elections. LaNier Echols, for example, got $7,500 from LEE when she ran for a seat on the IPS board in 2014.

“Deitric Hall is a shining example of understanding his community and the schools that serve it,” LEE spokesman Eric Guckian said in a statement. “His vision for Washington Township will make him an invaluable member of the school board, if elected.”

Three of the five school board seats are up for election in Washington Township. Hall is facing off against one opponent, John Fencl, for an at-large seat representing the entire district.

Fencl has deep roots in the community: He is a parent of two middle schoolers in Washington Township where he also grew up and went to school. Fencl, an accountant, has volunteered as a math tutor and coach in the district. He said his work mentoring middle school boys has given him particular insight into the schools.

“I’m focused on the district, involved in the district,” he said. “I understand what Washington Township schools are about.”

When Fencl filed a fundraising report with the county earlier this month, he had raised just $750, which he said was because he wasn’t sure how competitive the race would be. But when he saw how much money Hall had raised, he shifted into high gear. In just a couple of weeks, Fencl boosted his fundraising to close to $7,500, he said. About $5,000 of that came from a single donor, Washington Township attorney Charles Rubright.

Since it became clear how much money Hall raised, other community members, including parents and even high school students, have become active in the race. They say they are motivated by concern over the role out-of-state funding is playing in Hall’s campaign.

Kristina Frey is a Washington Township parent who leads the Parent Council Network, a longstanding political group that endorsed Fencl. When she learned that Hall had joined the race, she set up a meeting to hear about his plan for the district and she came away uncertain why he was even running, she said.

“My suspicion is that folks in the education reform movement are looking at how they can potentially expand outside of IPS boundaries,” Frey said. “I would not be surprised to see them come back again with more money and try to gain a majority as they did in IPS.”

Washington Township attracts lots of families looking for good schools, and it recently rolled out the popular International Baccalaureate curriculum districtwide. But more than half its students are poor enough to receive meal assistance, and it is increasingly diverse, with a growing population of Hispanic children.

As a result, the district is facing some of the same challenges of larger urban districts, such as figuring out how to reduce suspensions. But parents say there hasn’t been much conflict over traditional school reform policies: The district doesn’t have teachers from TFA and there is only one charter school within its boundaries. The most pressing issue facing Washington Township seems to be school funding.

“I think it’s a pretty harmonious situation,” said Shelley Clark, a parent and member of the Parent Council Network whose children went to school with Fencl’s.

The relative calm of district politics is one reason why parents such as Clark are so suspicious of Hall’s involvement in the race and the unexpectedly large influx of cash he is receiving from national advocates.

“I feel like I sound like a conspiracy theorist,” Clark said. “But I’d be curious to know why is this important? Why is this happening now? Why is it worth $31,000 to some institution that isn’t even from here?”

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.