Can community groups claim a win in defeat of well-financed candidate for IPS board?

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Elizabeth Gore

Now that the dust has cleared on the contentious battle for control of the Indianapolis Public Schools board, three well-funded candidates who’ve aligned with groups that support controversial reforms like charter schools have won seats on the board.

But in a stunning upset, former IPS board president Elizabeth Gore ousted incumbent Sam Odle.

Odle, who represented the entire district in one of the board’s at-large seats, was a strong supporter of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and initiatives such as innovation schools, which have charter-like freedom from district rules and hire non-union teachers.

Critics of Ferebee-style reforms touted Gore’s victory in Tuesday’s election as evidence that school choice advocates are losing their influence in Indianapolis — and that it’s possible for candidates to win without big money.

“(It’s) encouraging that moving forward, we can start to take back more seats next time,” said Chrissy Smith, a parent and member of OurIPS, a community group that partnered with Concerned Clergy to lead an organized campaign to unseat the current board members in favor of a slate they endorsed.

Smith said critics of the current administration learned a lot from this campaign, and the groups aim to get more people involved.

“This isn’t the last thing that someone is going to hear from OurIPS or from parents,” Smith said. “We are just getting started.”

But supporters of the current board argue that Gore’s election is little more than an aberration. They note Gore was not among candidates endorsed by the OurIPS/Concerned Clergy coalition. In fact, none of the candidates backed by the coalition was victorious on Tuesday.

Groups like Stand for Children, which supports partnerships with charter schools and policies aimed at improving student test scores, meanwhile saw victories for three of the four candidates they supported including Diane Arnold in District Four, Michael O’Connor in District One and Venita Moore in District Two.

“I don’t think … there’s a kind of anti-reform vote out there,” said David Harris, CEO of the Mind Trust, a non-profit that supports charter schools, charter partnerships with IPS and reform policies.

But Harris was at a loss to explain Odle’s defeat. “What the explanation is, I don’t know,” he said.

Odle, who could not be reached for comment, is well known in the community. He vastly outspent his political opponents and received additional campaign support from Stand, which leads expensive campaigns for its slate of candidates.

The one controversy that popped up in the campaign was Odle’s history as a board member for ITT Educational Services, a for-profit company that filed for bankruptcy last month following severe federal sanctions.

Odle won his seat in 2012 with substantial backing from advocates who supported giving schools charter-like flexibility and policies aimed at improving student test scores. It was the first of two elections that helped reshape the district as a wave of people looking for ways to shake up the traditional district came to power. A former top executive at Indiana University Health, Odle attended IPS schools as a child and supporters had high hopes for his role on the board. But just one term later, Odle has lost his seat.

Gore won the seat easily, picking up 43 percent of the vote in a three-way race against Odle. Her success is something of a surprise because she was at disadvantage in the race — with substantially less funding and no endorsements from the groups seeking to reshape the district.

“I’m really kind of reeling,” Gore said a day after the election. “I’m praying that it was the people’s will. … People that felt that I would do a good job.”

A former IPS board president who is active in local groups such as Concerned Clergy, Gore is relatively well known in the community. She raised about $1,200 during the race — far less than the $25,626 Odle had raised in October — and mostly spent her campaign money on yard signs and radio ads.

This election is something of a reversal from Gore’s last campaign when she lost her seat representing District Two on the board in 2012 to a candidate, Gayle Cosby, who benefitted from extensive support from Stand and other pro-school choice advocates. Cosby didn’t run for reelection.

This time around, Gore believes her prior experience on the board helped her win allies.

“I felt that being on the board before was a plus,” she said. “When I was there, … I was always very visible. I always went to the schools.”

Correction: Nov. 10, 2016: A previous version of this story said that Odle was backed by Stand for Children in 2012. He did not go through their endorsement process or receive support.


Who will be advising Indiana’s next state superintendent? Not the charter advocates some expected

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick

Indiana’s next state superintendent Jennifer McCormick today announced the team of 17 educators and policymakers who will help her prepare to take office in early January — and not one of them is a major player in Indiana’s charter school or voucher scene.

That matters because for much of McCormick’s campaign, critics charged that she would be no different from her Republican predecessors who pushed sweeping changes in the state, shifting resources away from traditional district schools toward charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition.

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.

McCormick insisted throughout her campaign that she’s not like Tony Bennett, the controversial former Republican superintendent, but those claims were largely dismissed by the state’s staunchest advocates for traditional public schools.

Perhaps until now.

“I am excited and honored to work with such a dynamic and diverse group,” McCormick, said in a statement as she announced her transition team. “The team’s commitment to Hoosier students will drive critical decision-making which will ultimately impact Indiana’s education system and ensure Indiana has one of the best Departments of Education in the nation.”

McCormick’s team includes one Republican lawmaker, several public school administrators, two university professors and a testing expert. Also on the list are community and business leaders as well as educators who work in preschools and with special needs children, among others.

The Institute for Quality Education, a school choice advocacy group that strongly backed McCormick’s campaign, will not have any direct representation on the team.

McCormick’s victory over incumbent Democrat Glenda Ritz was a surprise to many on Election Night. The Yorktown superintendent’s campaign focused on her strengths as an educator and leader following a decades-long career as teacher, principal and administrator.

But she has offered few insights about how she will govern, especially since her policy positions are fairly moderate.

While she’s likely to get along better with Republican lawmakers than Ritz, who spent much of the last four years clashing with the GOP, she’s expressed concerns about some major Republican-led initiatives over the past few years, most notably taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools that divert money from public schools.

The transition team is her first major act as superintendent-elect, offering Hoosiers their first look at her most important priorities.

Notably missing from the list is anyone from Indianapolis Public Schools — a detail that one school advocate called “unfortunate.”

“What Indianapolis has done is a national model, and so not to have that represented on the transition team seems like an omission,” said David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, a pro-charter school Indianapolis-based nonprofit. “IPS right now is also not just at the forefront of the state, but really at the forefront nationally in its work to create innovation network schools, and districts around Indiana would benefit from that perspective.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she had been looking forward to seeing who McCormick would pick to assist her since the two talked last week.

“My first reaction was, ‘Wow, this is a really mixed bag of people,’” Meredith said. “I’m glad that she is being really thoughtful in her selections.”

Here’s the full team:

  • Brad Balch: Professor and Dean Emeritus, Indiana State University, Department of Educational Leadership
  • Todd Bess: Executive Director, Indiana Association of School Principals
  • Wes Bruce: Education and assessment consultant who has spent many years with the Indiana Department of Education
  • Jeff Butts: President-Elect, Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, current superintendent of Wayne Township.
  • Rep. Tony Cook: State Representative, Indiana House of Representatives – District 32, vice chairman of the House Education Committee
  • Denny Costerison: Executive Director, Indiana Association of School Business Officials
  • Scot Croner: Superintendent, Blackford County Schools
  • Steve Edwards (Transition Team Chair): Retired Superintendent and Education Consultant, Administrator Assistance
  • Nancy Holsapple: Executive Director, Old National Trail Special Services Inter-Local
  • David Holt: Chief Financial Officer, MSD Warren Township
  • Lee Ann Kwiatkowski: Member, State Board of Education, assistant superintendent of Warren Township
  • Micah Maxwell: Executive Director, Boys & Girls Club of Muncie
  • Hardy Murphy: Executive Director, Indiana Urban Schools Association and Clinical Professor of Education, IUPUI, IU School of Education
  • Kathryn Raasch: Principal, Wayne Township Preschool
  • Terry Spradlin: Director of Community and Governmental Relations, Education Networks of America
  • Lisa Tanselle: General Counsel, Indiana School Boards Association
  • Kelly Wittman: Executive Principal, Max S. Hayes Career & Technical High School, a public school in Cleveland, Ohio.

changing of the guard

Will Indiana Republicans now move to make the state superintendent job appointed?

Now that a Republican is heading into the state superintendent office in January, Indiana lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — might start singing a different tune about the powers of that office.

The office has been the subject of dispute since 2012 when Democrat Glenda Ritz defeated Republican Tony Bennett in a surprise upset, becoming the only Democrat elected to statewide office.

Since then, as Ritz clashed repeatedly with Gov. Mike Pence and other GOP lawmakers,  Republicans have openly questioned the role of Indiana’s state superintendent, suggesting the job should have less power and should be appointed by the governor rather than elected.

During Ritz’s superintendency, GOP lawmakers passed a bill giving the Indiana State Board of Education the right to choose its own leader rather than having the superintendent automatically assigned as board chair.

But in the weeks since Republican Jennifer McCormick blocked Ritz’s re-election bid, the GOP resolve to limit the state superintendent’s powers seems to have diminished.

There might also be changes on the other side of the aisle, where Democrats signaled their support for a strong superintendent could waver.

At Tuesday’s legislative Organization Day, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he’s advocated for reducing the superintendent’s power “for 30 years” but that he didn’t think he’ll make that a priority for the next legislative session beginning in January.

“I want to have a discussion with the superintendent-elect,” he said. “It’s probably not an issue for this session. Perhaps next.”

For Democrats who were in office when Indiana had Democratic governors, the question of appointing the state superintendent is a sticky one. Back then, Indiana had a Republican state superintendent and many Democrats argued the governor should appoint that position in order to have consistency in education policymaking.

But with Ritz in the role and constantly crossing swords with Pence, Democrats defended her against calls to strip power from her office.

Democratic House leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City said that’s why big changes, like taking away voters’ option to choose the state superintendent, shouldn’t be made lightly.

“On balance I think people like more choices rather than fewer at the ballot box,” he said. “I think we’ve had a system that has more or less functioned over a period of time. We shouldn’t change it without a great deal of hesitation.”

Even so, Pelath said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to making the superintendent job appointed.

“I have an open mind,” he said. “I could be convinced either way.”

With McCormick in and Ritz out, there could be a lot of second guessing on key questions about her role and her power.

Bosma was among a majority of Republicans who successfully backed a bill to change that longstanding rule, instead allowing the 11 board members to pick their own leader. Democrats opposed the change, arguing that it was a blatant attempt to take power away from the superintendent.

After fighting to give the board the option to choose someone besides the state superintendent as chair] — a right that kicks in for the first time next year —  Bosma declined to say whether he thinks the board members should simply select McCormick for the role. “I have not made a determination on that,” he said.

Pelath said he still thinks the state superintendent should chair the board, even if it’s McCormick.

“That’s one you can’t have both ways,” he said. “I support the way that it was before the attacks on Superintendent Ritz and the stripping of her abilities. If we’re going to have a state superintendent this person should be empowered to do something about education.”

Bosma said he wants to let the changes the legislature made to the state board play out.

“I think the system we put into place has worked,” he said. “Is it perfect? Probably not. We’ll let the new superintendent get her legs under herself first and get the Department of Education back on track, because I’m not sure it is right now, and let the dust settle.”