The story behind the mysterious group aiming to shake up the IPS school board race

As the race for seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools board heats up, a new group called OurIPS has emerged to push for a wave of challengers to take control — disrupting the power of school reform advocates who dominate the board.

The grassroots group — which bills itself as an antidote to the increasing influence of money in IPS elections — is primarily active online, with several Facebook groups that have attracted an array of critics of the current administration and an anonymous website railing against the incumbents.

As OurIPS has become more public in its political activism in recent weeks, co-sponsoring education forums and candidate report cards with two more established groups, Concerned Clergy and the NAACP, some current school board members raised questions on social media about the origin and membership of the group.

In an apparent reference to OurIPS, board member Kelly Bentley wondered on Facebook whether the anonymous website represents members of the local community.

“For all we know these people could live in Brownsburg, Indiana or New York City,” she wrote.

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

Chalkbeat reached out to leaders and members of the group to find out how it started and what its aim is.

Mary Louise Bewley, who created the OurIPS Facebook groups, said that more than 300 people are involved with the group, including parents, teachers and community members. The group has no formal leadership and she did not create the website, Bewley said.

“I felt like people needed to be able to share information with each other and to question,” she said. “There really is no leadership. … Anybody can stand up and speak on behalf of the group.”

OurIPS has endorsed candidates, but it is not providing funding for them, Bewley said. Leaders are planning to form a political action committee to fundraise for candidates in the future.

Bewley, who lives in Brownsburg and sent her son to Arsenal Technical High School, worked in communication for the district for more than a decade, leaving prior to the departure of former-Superintendent Eugene White.

The group does not make its membership or all of its leadership public because many members who are parents or staff in IPS fear “retribution” if they speak publicly, Bewley said.

But some of the members of OurIPS are vocal about their views. Chrissy Smith, who has two children at Sidener Academy, said she learned about OurIPS from other community members who share her concern about what she describes as the corporate influence on the district.

“We’re just a group of teachers, educators, … parents, community members, who are really dedicated to getting people onto the school board and into our school system to stop the privatization,” she said.

Smith said she plans to vote for the candidates endorsed by OurIPS, including Jim Grim (who is running for an at-large seat held by Sam Odle) and Larry Vaughn (who is running against Diane Arnold to represent the south westside).

Vaughn’s endorsement by OurIPS was surprising because he is known for rambling, inflammatory speeches at public meetings. On Tuesday, Vaughn once again appeared during the school board public comment period to deliver a disjointed lecture about segregation that included repeated accusations that the board members are “criminals and child molesters.”

Smith became interested in the school reform movement in IPS when her children’s former school announced plans to become an “innovation” school, she said. Innovation schools are managed by outside charter operators or non-profits but still considered part of the district.

Bewley said that many of the members of OurIPS share concerns over innovation schools. But it is a loose group, and its members have a range of concerns about the administration.

Marvin Hutcherson, an IPS graduate who has four children in district schools, said that he supports the idea of innovation schools, but he thinks plans for the schools need to be more transparent and the district should wait for more data on their outcomes before moving forward.

Hutcherson’s biggest frustration with the administration is communication with parents and community members. He has reason for frustration: All four of his children have been affected by controversial decisions to move magnet programs.

He has two children at Shortridge High School and two children at Edison School of the Arts, both schools had magnet programs that were moved despite complaints from parents.

“I want a district that has high-quality schools. I’m not opposed to a lot of the changes they have made. I’m opposed to how they have done it,” Hutcherson said. “I want candidates who are going to actually listen.”