Who should replace Lewis Ferebee as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools?

Indianapolis’ education community is already mulling what kind of leader should replace Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who announced Monday that he’s leaving to head D.C. public schools.

With the 31,000-student school district in a state of flux, school board members and advocates say there is no time to waste. The district closed high schools last year. Two candidates opposed to innovation schools — the group of charter and charter-like schools managed by outside operators that was one of Ferebee’s main achievements — were recently elected to the school board. And despite the passage of a referendum to send more taxpayer money to schools, more large cuts are looming.

“Certainly it’s an important, critical time for IPS — the work that we’re doing with them, how they approach teacher pay and principal pay,” Mark Fisher, who leads policy for the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce said. “It’s going to be a critical hire for Dr. Ferebee’s replacement, and especially with several new board members joining the board, they’ll be drinking from the firehose.”

First, Indianapolis Public Schools board members will have to decide if they want to hire from within the community or pursue a national search for their new leader. Board president Michael O’Connor said the school board would meet soon in executive session to hammer out next steps.

“We’ll gather as a board and make some immediate decisions on a transition period,” O’Connor said. “This is a particularly touchy time period because you’ve got a board transition occurring, so we’ll make sure to be very inclusive.”

Mary Ann Sullivan, an outgoing board member, said her advice to her colleagues would be to keep it local. Don’t make the process to find Ferebee’s replacement lengthier than it needs to be, she said, noting that there are definitely people in Indianapolis who are ready to step in to take over, though she declined to provide names.

“Things can drag on a long time, and in the meantime, people have to go to work every day and get things done for kids,” Sullivan said. “I would prefer a very, very short turnaround to new leadership.”

A few possible internal candidates exist, including Ferebee’s deputy Superintendent Aleesia Johnson and his chief of staff Ahmed Young. Another local option would be to pluck the leader of a neighboring township, as IPS did before Ferebee with former Superintendent Eugene White.

A national search would likely take longer than a local hire, leaving an interim leader at the helm for some stretch of time. But with budget cuts and school closures looming, any outsider would need to be a quick study — and an attractive superintendent candidate might be hesitant to join a district facing those difficult realities.

“This is certainly going to be a more challenging transition, especially if the board does a national search and you look to bring someone in from the outside,” Fisher said. “There’s a lot of data out there, so I don’t think a new superintendent is going to be coming in blind to the challenges that the district faces or, quite frankly, some of the tough decisions we know that they’ll need to make.”

The selection could prove challenging because of the new board make-up. The two new board members are not in lockstep with Ferebee’s philosophies, and it’s unclear how easy it will be for the new board to reach a consensus.

As far as who that new leader should be, insiders focused on the need for someone with strong communication skills, both with the public and with politicians in the statehouse. Ferebee, who took heat for not always garnering grassroot support for changes, specifically mentioned collaboration as a skill that his successor will need.

“Continue the collaborative spirit,” Ferebee advised in an interview with Chalkbeat. “It would be unfortunate if we became isolated from our partners and we’re back to what I call random acts of improvement … We must hold on to it.”

Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, a group that supports charter schools in IPS and has worked closely with Ferebee, agrees. Brown said the district needs the community on its side as it continues rolling out changes.

“One thing I’ve learned over the past five years is that change is really hard, and when you think about the series of changes that have happened in IPS, it has been a lot,” Brown said. “One of the important things when you’re going through change is to ensure that you’re communicating that change effectively, and it’s important to prioritize those who are impacted the most.”

And that isn’t limited to local partners either — the next superintendent of Indiana’s largest school district needs to have the ear of state leaders and lawmakers as well, advocates say, especially as Indiana heads into a new legislative session where school funding and teacher pay will be central debates.

“It’s not just what’s happening with our city, but how we interact with the legislature and how state policy is set.” Fisher said. “That is something that has gone very underappreciated when it comes to how Dr. Ferebee has worked that end of Market Street.”

Ferebee’s replacement will also have to consider whether to keep up his growing network of innovation schools. The controversial schools have won some support across the city, but critics are calling for a closer look at the model before it is allowed to grow. Figuring out how to balance growth and evaluation of the young program will be key to winning the support of board members and community members alike.

Board member Venita Moore said it was too early to make any kind of conclusion about whether innovation schools work or not, but she says over the next year the board will be able to better evaluate where the district is at. Although she said she’d prefer if Ferebee didn’t leave at such a pivotal time, she’s got her eyes on what’s coming next.

“I’m looking for someone that can think outside the box, who is very open to looking at different things but also willing to look at what we have and see how we can shape what we have,” she said. “It’s not a secret that I am open to a portfolio of schools … but I am also about ensuring that as we move forward, that we are assured that the direction we are currently going is in the correct direction.”

Charity Scott, executive director of the IPS Community Coalition, a group that organizes parents and has often spoken against the Ferebee’s administration, said she was skeptical that the district should continue its strong march in favor of charter school partnerships. She thinks the focus of the new board and, eventually, its new leader, should be nailing down what does and doesn’t work.

“The priority should be evaluating the effectiveness of these partnerships,” Scott said. “It’s very concerning that three innovation schools are under (school quality reviews) with the district,” adding that because those schools are measured according to a more generous growth-only yardstick, it’s even more troubling that they’re struggling.

“How can we make sure what we have now is effective for all students, especially those who are most vulnerable — poor, black, brown kids,” Scott said. “We need to know if it’s working in the first place and if it should be expanded.”