The replacement

Two IPS parents, one ousted member vie for open seat on school board

PHOTO: Monica Disare

Just 30 days after voters chose four members of the Indianapolis Public Schools board, a fifth seat is up for grabs.

Board members must fill an unexpected vacancy following the resignation November 7 of District 5 board member LaNier Echols. The board will choose from three finalists who were interviewed tonight, including the man who held the seat before Echols. The finalists are:

  • Michael Brown, who served on the IPS board for over 16 years;
  • Eugene Hawkins, an IPS parent and senior operations manager at Praxair Surface Technologies; and
  • Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, an IPS parent who previously led human resources for a large nonprofit.

In his interview with the board, Brown, who represented District 5 for 16 years before losing his seat to Echols in 2014, described his education philosophy as “we do whatever to takes to make children successful.”

Brown, a retired supervisor for UPS, is not naturally aligned with the board’s current majority, which is largely comprised of members who support controversial reforms such as innovation schools. Innovation schools are considered part of the district but have many of the freedoms of charter schools including non-unionized teachers.

Brown, who has been skeptical of innovation schools, was largely pushed out of office by advocates who wanted to see drastic changes. He backed former-Superintendent Eugene White and voted against a buyout that made way for Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. In the next election, advocates who wanted change in the district supported Echols and other “reformers” who maintain a majority on the board.

As he made his pitch to the board, Brown clearly knew he was being evaluated by members he might have disagreements with. He stressed that he shares the board’s ultimate goal of improving school quality.

“Rather than my side, your side, it’s the children’s side and making sure that that is what drives us,” he said.

A lifelong resident of Indianapolis, Brown touted his experience with the district as a parent, coach and tutor. He said even though he is not currently on the board, neighbors still call him with questions about schools.

Since the other two candidates don’t have prior relationships with the board, they devoted a portion of their interviews to introducing themselves.

Hawkins said he moved to Indianapolis in the late 1990s and has since grown “roots” in the city. In his spare time, he said, he works with students as a mentor and coach.

Hawkins is the parent of a child at Cold Spring School, a thriving environmental science magnet school that converted to an innovation school this year. He said that his son is having a wonderful experience at the school, and he would like other students in the city to have the same quality education.

“I am excited and passionate about my neighborhood,” he said. “I have found a way to get others excited as well. … One of the biggest strengths that I have is passion for getting things done and exciting others.”

The third candidate, Hoops, said she’s a California a native who moved to Indianapolis in 2011. She is a first-generation Mexican American and a fluent Spanish speaker who previously led human resources for a large nonprofit organization.

Hoops’ son attends School 27, a Center for Inquiry magnet school on the near northwest. She said her son has special needs, which prompted her to leave her career to focus on his education. That experience fueled her interest in improving education for other students.

“I really am passionate about ensuring that all children of all backgrounds and abilities have the educational experience that they need in order to make the choices that they want to make in the future,” she said.

If the board chooses Hawkins or Hoops, it would fill a potential gap on the board: The perspective of a current parent. Many board members have children who graduated from IPS and relatives in the schools. But the only current IPS parent is Gayle Cosby, who did not run for reelection and will end her term this month.

Cosby’s other role on the board, however, has been that of a vocal dissenter, and Brown seems best positioned to play the role of skeptic on innovation schools and other controversial changes.

The three finalists were identified by the board during a Wednesday meeting that was closed to the public. The law requires that a minimum of three candidates be interviewed publicly but there were only three contenders. A fourth candidate, Donnell Duncan, withdrew his application before the meeting.

Echols told Chalkbeat just hours before last month’s election that she planned to leave the board. Echols, who has an infant son, said the decision was related to family obligations. She said she plans to return to Florida.

If Echols had resigned earlier in the year, her seat would have appeared on the ballot in November and voters would have gotten to choose her replacement instead of the board.

Some critics suggested that Echols had side-stepped democracy by not announcing her resignation sooner but a local election attorney told Chalkbeat that it’s not clear when she would have had to make her departure public in order for her post to have appeared on the ballot.

The board will vote on a new member at its meeting Tuesday.

2018

Salazar won’t run in governor’s race featuring strong education storylines

PHOTO: Denver Post File
Former U.S. Senator and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Ken Salazar’s decision not to run for Colorado governor takes one prominent Democrat out of a still-developing campaign that promises to prominently feature public education as an issue.

The former U.S. senator and interior secretary cited family reasons for his decision to sit out the 2018 Democratic primary. Salazar, who is closely involved in raising a granddaughter who has autism, could have been a voice on public education for children with disabilities.

In a Denver Post commentary explaining why isn’t running, Salazar took a broad view of the challenges in education.

“Colorado’s education crisis needs to be solved from pre-kindergarten to college,” Salazar wrote. “It is sad that Colorado has defunded higher education and abandoned the great tradition of leading the nation with our great colleges and universities.”

Salazar’s announcement could set other plans in motion quickly in the Democratic field.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston, a prominent education reformer, and entrepreneur Noel Ginsburg, CEO of Intertech Plastics, have already announced they are running.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Arvada told the Denver Post on Thursday the “chances are very good” he will run, and could declare his candidacy soon.

Former state treasurer Cary Kennedy said she is seriously considering running, and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder said he has not ruled it out, according to the Post.

Among the Republicans mulling a run: District Attorney George Brauchler, state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and state Treasurer Walker Stapleton.

how's it going?

She’s no Tony Bennett or Glenda Ritz — Jennifer McCormick is charting her own course as Indiana’s schools chief

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

For years, Indiana’s state superintendents have made huge political waves while in office.

Tony Bennett was a major Republican proponent of choice-based education reform. Democrat Glenda Ritz led an administration filled with political clashes with then-Gov. Mike Pence, a staunch conservative.

But this could be changing with Indiana’s newest schools chief, Jennifer McCormick.

More than two months into her administration and more than halfway through the 2017 legislative session, educators and advocates are praising McCormick’s focus and remain optimistic about her tenure.

“The general perception is people are finding her and her staff are good to work with,” said Betsy Wiley, head of the Indiana Institute for Quality Education, a local school reform organization that made large donations to McCormick’s campaign. “I think she’s been working really hard on making sure people know that her door is open.”

As a Republican official taking office under a Republican governor, McCormick is better positioned politically to accomplish her goals. Her relationship with Gov. Eric Holcomb has appeared relatively tension-free so far. They’ve made joint announcements about state initiatives related to STEM education and workforce development, and McCormick has been on-board with his budget proposal.

McCormick said that so far, there has been lots of talking.

“We’re not always going to agree, but at least the conversations are happening,” she said. “We have our hands and eyes and voice in a lot of the education bills that we’re concerned about, so we’ve been right there at the table offering amendments” to legislators.

But mostly, McCormick has been quiet when it comes to public state policy debates.

“I think she’s learning the ropes, and rightly so,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said. “She and her team are working closely with the state board, so I consider it very good — No controversy of any kind.”

Yet McCormick’s approach doesn’t sit as well with Minority Leader Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. He said he’s worried she’s leaving too much power to top GOP lawmakers in charge of education and not taking enough initiative at the department of education.

“I’m not familiar with any of the work that she’s doing,” he said. “The work that is happening on education is happening in the House and Senate chambers … If it’s her aim to just be ‘go along, get along, whatever Rep. Behning says or Sen. Kruse says is A-OK,’ I don’t know that she’s going to have a major role to play.”

Bosma and Pelath’s difference in opinion reflects some of the debates occurring in the Indiana General Assembly this year about whether to make the state superintendent an appointed or elected position. Part of the conversation inevitably centers around how people view McCormick’s role and it’s purpose.

It’s not clear yet if McCormick will step forward with ideas of her own or be more of an administrator who solely implements the policies of lawmakers, which GOP leaders repeatedly. But she has supported Gov. Eric Holcomb’s plan to make the role an appointed one.

McCormick has testified once this year before the Indiana Senate. During that hearing last week, she expressed concerns about testing and teacher evaluation that routinely were dismissed when Ritz was in charge, such as advocating for “computer-adaptive” tests. She also told senators there should be more conversations about how test scores are tied into teacher evaluations and whether that provision should be removed.

McCormick isn’t — and never has been — in lockstep with other Republicans on education policy. That was clear during her campaign, when, despite having mostly school choice advocates and Republicans as donors, she disagreed with GOP policies and instead advocated for changes to the school funding formula and seriously evaluating the impact of state-funded vouchers for private school.

Wiley said that although McCormick hasn’t shown herself to be an aggressive supporter of all school choice policies, such as vouchers, Wiley still thinks her organization made a good investment in backing her.

“She knows she has at least four years in that role, and she intends to do and get stuff done,” Wiley said. “If she doesn’t get credit for it along the way, I just don’t think she cares.”

Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said he’s heard from school leaders that they’re seeing more timely responses to phone calls and emails with the department of education.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she’s appreciated the time McCormick has made to talk with ISTA members, and she has no reason to believe she’s not going to support public schools — she’s “cautiously optimistic.”

Despite accusations during her campaign that she’d be too much like her Republican predecessor, Bennett, McCormick has not aligned herself with one particular education philosophy or camp. David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, said that independence is admirable.

“She is clearly her own woman, and I think there were some expectations,” Harris said. “She has been pretty clear that she’s going to follow the agenda and approach that she thinks is best.”