How backlash to big changes in Indianapolis Public Schools fueled board upsets

Two outsiders who have been critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools board defeated incumbents Tuesday, a change that could prove pivotal for a district that has garnered a national reputation for its partnerships with charter schools.

For over three years, Indianapolis Public Schools has offered a blueprint for an approach to education that blurs the line between charter schools and traditional public districts by launching and rapidly expanding schools run by charter or nonprofit operators but that remain under the district’s umbrella. This year, more than one in four district students attends one of those 20 innovation schools, as the district calls its hybrid model.

But those policies face mounting resistance. Two newly elected school board members could, for the first time, pump the brakes on the dramatic changes the current board has supported.

The results show that “the community is not happy with where IPS is going,” said Dountonia Batts, executive director of the IPS Community Coalition, a grassroots group that got funding from a national teachers union. People, she said, “believe that the community does have power at our public schools, and they don’t want to see that power slip away.”

With all precincts reporting and absentee ballots counted Thursday night, retired teacher Susan Collins won a close contest for an at-large seat on the board. Collins took 43.7 percent of the vote, defeating incumbent and former state lawmaker Mary Ann Sullivan (42.5 percent) by about 700 votes. Ceramics studio owner Joanna Krumel had 13.8 percent of votes.

In a race between two IPS parents, federal worker Taria Slack won a seat representing district 5 on the northwest side of the district, defeating incumbent Dorene Rodriguez Hoops.

Evan Hawkins, another IPS parent, won a seat representing district 3, the north side of the district. Hawkins, a Marian University administrator, defeated Michele Lorbieski and Sherry Shelton.

Collins and Slack both won seats on the board with the support of the state and local teachers unions, as well as the IPS Community Coalition. Innovation schools have drawn particular criticism from the teachers union in part because teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, not the district, so they cannot join the union.

Although neither Collins or Slack said they completely oppose innovation schools, both winners have said the district should be more careful in deciding whether to approve the schools. Slack’s own children attend innovation schools, and she said that experience gives her insight into the challenges for families.

“It’s unstable for our kids,” she said, pointing to the departure of the school principal. “We need to slow that down.”

Collins said that the district should slow the spread of innovation schools so community members can get more information.

“This is about the people in Indianapolis. What do they want for their kids?” Collins said. “If the people in Indianapolis want more innovation schools, they should understand where that money is coming from, who is running that school, and how tested has the program been for success.”

Sullivan has been one of the board’s strongest proponents of innovation schools. But she acknowledges that the district has struggled to communicate the board’s overarching vision and involve parents earlier in decisions — and that’s one of the chief reasons she believes she lost.

“When you’re in the weeds, it’s hard to step back and realize everybody isn’t there with you,” she said.

Sullivan also pointed to campaign problems as another reason why she believes she lost. Political allies often told her that she did not need to worry about reelection, implying that private polls were in her favor, so she and her campaign manager ran a low-key effort. They did not send any mailers, she said, and they did not have enough volunteers outside polling places on Election Day.

In previous elections, one of the most influential players in the school board race has been Stand for Children Indiana, the local branch of a national group aimed at training parents to advocate for their children and pushing for school choice. Stand parents have advocated for their schools to become innovation schools.

The group sent mailers, hired campaign workers, and advertised for the candidates it endorsed. But opponents criticize its campaign efforts because the government exempts it from having to disclose all of its political activity. Stand for Children is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. Executive Director Justin Ohlemiller declined to say how much the group spent on the school board race.

This year, the group proved less powerful: Only one of its endorsed candidates, Hawkins, won.

While Sullivan won four years ago with the support of Stand for Children Indiana, she said that this year, the group’s support may have undermined her campaign.

“I got enough feedback that it was alienating in some way,” she said. “That’s obviously not the goal when somebody is trying to support you.”

While the new board members may be more critical of innovation schools, Ohlemiller said Stand for Children will continue to work with all board members.

“At the end of the day, the advocacy doesn’t stop even after the election,” he said. “If there’s an attempt, for whatever reason, to slow down efforts that are offering parents the opportunity to bring a quality school or a quality program to their community, then our parents will obviously advocate against that action.”

While there will be more board members who “have been vocally critical of the current direction of IPS,” they haven’t won a majority on the board, said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports innovation schools. It’s too soon to say how the election will affect innovation schools, he said.

“To expect no pushback at all would be naive,” Brown said. “Change is hard and democracy is messy.”

But national advocates for traditional public schools who have been watching Indianapolis closely saw the results as a good sign for efforts to push back against partnerships between districts and charter schools. Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, which recently held a conference in Indianapolis, described the vote as “very good news for friends of public education all across the country.”