Indianapolis Public School Board’s push for change faces a test on Election Day

In just over three months, Indianapolis voters will have a chance to weigh in on whether the state’s largest school district should continue to embrace controversial new policies.

Indianapolis Public Schools has garnered national attention with an ambitious effort to change the way public schools are managed in the city with some schools being given new freedom and others being handed over to outside managers.

But the upcoming election, with four out of seven seats up for grabs, could shift the balance of power back to supporters of more traditional schools.

“It matters mightily who wins,” said board president Mary Ann Sullivan, who is not up for reelection. “We will never know if (reform) works if we don’t get it all the way built out.”

The district faces severe problems at many schools — low student test scores, high teacher turnover and intense competition for students from charter schools. The current school board is meeting these challenges with a reform strategy being pushed by the Mind Trust, a local nonprofit advocacy organization, that includes new approaches to school funding and a growing number of district “innovation” schools, which have charter-like independence and teachers who are not part of the teachers union.

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

Over the last two election cycles, reform-minded candidates have easily beat out opponents, winning decisive control of the board.

But their vision is deeply controversial.

“Innovation schools, they are not part of the association,” said Ann Wilkins, an Indiana State Teachers Association staffer who works with IPS teachers. “When you give away teacher jobs to a private … entity that really has no interest in our children except for a dollar, then I have a problem with that.”

Wilkins takes issue with the possibility that for-profit companies could be selected to run innovation schools, though the current board primarily works with non-profits. Only one innovation school in the district has a for-profit manager. The school, Emma Donnan Elementary and Middle School, was turned over to the for-profit Charters USA by the Indiana Department of Education as an intervention after years of low test scores.

Wilkins said the union would like to see new board members elected who oppose innovation schools. But the group won’t decide whether to recommend candidates until after the Aug. 26 filing deadline.

Other critics of the current board say they are already leading a renewed push to take back control.

Larry Yarrell, chair of the NAACP education committee, said that doing more voter education is the key to winning back seats on the board. The NAACP will hold several forums and issue report cards on each candidate, he said, adding: “This time it’s going to be different.”

Even if critics of IPS changes are not able to win a majority on the board, holding just one seat could be essential to maintaining a voice in district policy. Gayle Cosby, who is often the lone opponent of district-charter partnerships, announced in January that she will not seek reelection.

The other three candidates up for reelection told Chalkbeat they plan to run this fall. They include Diane Arnold, who has been on the board since 2004, Sam Odle, who was elected in 2012, and Michael O’Connor, who was chosen to fill a vacant seat in August 2015. All three candidates have largely supported reform policies, including converting traditional schools to innovation status.

Several other potential candidates have also emerged in recent weeks. A flyer for an NAACP candidates forum featured seven challengers:

But challengers face an uphill battle.

Pro-reform incumbents are likely to have strong support from organizations like STAND for Children, a national parent organizing group. During the last election, the group sent mailers and hired workers on election day to promote candidates it supported. Justin Ohlemiller, who leads the the local chapter of STAND, said the group does not yet know how much it will spend on this campaign.

A committee of parents will decide which candidates to endorse once the window to file closes, he said. But it’s clear the group supports the district’s new direction.

“No other administration or board in the past decade and half at least has done more to try to turn around failing schools in IPS,” said Ohlemiller.

Sullivan said she thinks it is unlikely that outside challengers will win control of the board in part because the same organizations that funded and fought for pro-reform candidates in prior elections are committed to making sure the policies they favor are implemented.

“It’s an investment in the future,” she said, “so they are going to make sure that it’s not left to chance.”

The window to file for candidacy opens July 27 and runs to Aug. 26. More information is available from the Marion County Election Board.