Six critical questions the IPS school board race will answer

For the second consecutive election cycle, the Indianapolis Public School Board race has broad implications that could alter the district’s trajectory.

Two years ago, the election tilted the board for the first time toward a brand of reform it had flatly rejected in the past: cooperation with businesses and conservative groups pushing more autonomy for schools and a total rethinking of how the district is managed.

Will changes to the board this fall bring a stronger connection to that flavor of reform? Or will the election steer the district toward a reconsideration of, and possibly even a step back from, the direction it has forged since the last election?

In 2012, three new board members who won seats broke up a steadfast majority which consistently supported former Superintendent Eugene White and his policies. Within days of taking office, a new board majority forced White out and soon began moving IPS toward positions that were previously unthinkable.

One example: IPS is now seeking partnerships with charter schools, whereas White had promised an all-out campaign to stop more IPS kids from enrolling in them.

But new divisions have emerged on the board and the election has helped push a further ideological realignment.

Here are six critical questions the election Nov. 4 will answer:

Will reformers take over the school board?

Four 2012 winners — Caitlin Hannon, Sam Odle, Diane Arnold and Gayle Cosby — called for similar changes in IPS and were expected to drive a somewhat coordinated agenda for the district.

All four backed reform ideas touted by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education reform group, and outside groups like Stand For Children and Democrats for Education Reform rallied around them. In 2011, the group proposed a deep cut in administrative spending, more autonomy for schools and an expansion of preschool.

But the alliance has not remained intact.

On some issues, such as ousting White, those four have joined with school board President Annie Roof and board member Samantha Adair-White.

Roof has sided with the reformers more often than Adair-White. To the surprise of even some of her campaign contributors, Cosby has sometimes allied with Adair-White and Michael Brown in opposition to changes favored by the rest of the board. That group has been increasingly cautious about partnerships with charter schools or outside groups promoting change in the district.

Candidates challenging Adair-White and Brown, however, are strongly aligned with the reformers. If former IPS board member Kelly Bentley defeats Adair-White and charter school dean LaNier Echols ousts Brown, the new board would have at least five members who are strongly aligned in favor of reforms favored by The Mind Trust, Stand for Children and others.

Can board President Annie Roof survive a five-way dogfight to keep her at-large seat?

Perhaps the most interesting race this fall is for an at-large seat held by Roof, the board president.

Roof has widely been viewed as in danger of losing her seat since high profile former state Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan, a national board member of Democrats for Education Reform, announced she was exploring a run for Roof’s seat. Sullivan has strong name recognition and a track record of success winning votes in the city. But the race has turned out to be more complicated than a showdown with Roof.

Three other candidates have joined the contest — Butler University business professor Josh Owens, Light of the World Church Pastor David Hampton and former IPS employee Ramon Batts.

Splitting the vote five ways could make it tougher for any one candidate to capture a majority. It makes it possible, for example, for a candidate to win with a lower vote total, even less than 50 percent. That could make the race more competitive and, perhaps, give Roof a better chance for survival.

Will the longest serving board member keep his seat?

Brown has served on the board for more than a decade and is the lone remaining holdover from the solid coalition that mostly backed White’s decisions when it held a majority until 2012.

Since then, Brown has remained a skeptic of reforms offered by The Mind Trust and other outside groups. He has opposed IPS layoffs and allied with the district’s teachers union on some issues.

Brown is an active volunteer at Northwest High School, which is the centerpiece high school in his Northwest Indianapolis district.

Seeking to unseat him is Echols, a former teacher who came to IPS through Teach for America and now serves as an administrator at a charter school.

The critical question for Echols is whether she can appeal to rank-and-file IPS parents and voters who have supported Brown through the years. She will need to persuade skeptics of school choice that a charter school employee can be an effective IPS board member.

Will Mary Ann Sullivan and Kelly Bentley be returned to public office?

Both Sullivan and Bentley gave up their last elected offices without seeking re-election. The school board is the road back to public life.

Sullivan gave up her Indiana House seat in an unsuccessful bit to unseat state Sen. Brent Waltz. Republican Waltz won re-election by a comfortable six-point margin.

Perhaps more surprising was support for Waltz from the Indiana State Teachers Association, which is usually a reliable supporter of Democratic candidates. But ISTA officials were disillusioned by Sullivan’s support in the legislature for Republican education bills, such as those that initiated a charter school expansion and changes to teacher evaluation in 2011.

Bentley left the IPS board in frustration, choosing not to seek reelection in 2010 after 12 years in office and frequent clashes with White. But Bentley told Chalkbeat in July she was more optimistic about the district’s opportunity to change under the current school board and Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Incumbent Adair-White’s re-election campaign is just getting off the ground, as she waited until the Aug. 22 filing deadline to decide to seek her seat again. James Turner, another former IPS employee, is also seeking Adair-White’s seat on the board.

Will 2014 be a high-dollar campaign like 2012?

The last school board campaign was groundbreaking for how well-funded the successful candidates were. Cosby raised more than $75,000, Hannon more than $65,000 and Odle more than $55,000. Those are huge amounts for a local school board race in Indiana. In the case of Cosby and Hannon, some of their support came from wealthy patrons of school reform in other states. Groups pushing for change in IPS, such as Stand for Children, gave considerable support to both, too.

Stand For Children and the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce have already endorsed Sullivan, Bentley and Echols, signaling that similar support could follow them this year. Both Sullivan and Bentley also are strongly connected to influential Democrats who support education reform nationally.

The teachers union for IPS and its parent group, ISTA, were not major contributors to candidates in 2012. That could change this year. Roof, Brown and Adair-White are expected to court union support and traditional Democratic voters.

Will the board emerge with any active IPS parents as members?

The two IPS board members with children who attend IPS schools — Roof and Adair-White — face stiff challenges to retain their seats. Additionally, Brown’s son graduated from IPS just two years ago.

If all three were defeated, it would leave the board void of any parents with children in the district, or who have recently had children attending IPS schools. Whether that is a concern for voters remains to be seen.

NOTE: Contribution figures for candidates in the 2012 races have been updated to reflect the most recent information available.