IPS voters have a lot on their ballot this November. Here’s why the school board race matters

The future of Indianapolis Public Schools is on the ballot this November.

Nearly half the seats on the board that oversees the state’s largest district will be up for election at the same time the school district asks voters for $272 million in additional funding.

With three of the seven seats on the board up for election, the winners could shift the direction of the board and, ultimately, the future of the district. The current members have largely backed Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration as the district has pursued a host of controversial strategies. The board has voted to give school principals more control and partner with charter operators, close high schools, and ask taxpayers for more funding for schools.

Those policies, and the administration’s approach, have generated growing criticism from some people in the district. In the last school board race, critics fielded several candidates, but all of them lost.

Now, critics of the administration have a more organized and active group, known as the IPS Community Coalition. But it’s unclear whether the group might sway the election. The coalition does not plan to spend money on the race, and with three weeks until the deadline for filing, none of the races are currently contested. (Although coalition executive director Dountonia Batts said that an opposing candidate will run in the at-large race.)

Board members Mary Ann Sullivan and Dorene Rodriguez Hoops are both running for reelection, and neither has a challenger yet. Fellow board member Kelly Bentley recently announced plans to retire. Evan Hawkins is the only candidate currently running for Bentley’s seat.

Another candidate who had announced plans to challenge Sullivan for the at-large seat dropped out before the race began. Jim Scheurich, a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, is sharply critical of the current administration and the school board. He told Chalkbeat Thursday that he decided not to run because a recently cracked rib would prevent him from fully campaigning.

That leaves a fairly empty field when it comes to critics of the administration, although more contenders are likely to emerge in the coming weeks. Candidates have until noon on Aug. 24 to file for the race.

A turning point for the state’s largest district

Supporters and skeptics of the current administration both consider this election cycle a pivotal moment for the direction of the district.

The school board race is “one of the most important and consequential” offices on the ballot, said Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana, a parent organizing group that advocates for policies such as innovation schools, which are run in partnership with charter or nonprofit operators.

Stand has not yet chosen which candidates to support or how much it will spend on the election, Ohlemiller said. In the coming weeks, the group will send questionnaires to candidates that its members will use to choose who to endorse. Stand has invested heavily in prior school board elections, sending mailers endorsing candidates and hiring campaign workers to knock on doors.

The primary issues that parents in Stand are interested in are the referendums, teacher pay, and innovation schools, Ohlemiller said. “It would be a shame if candidates were elected who would roll back basically some of what’s really working in the district,” he said, pointing to test score gains at some innovation schools.

Batts of the IPS Community Coalition said the group plans to endorse candidates for school board. They will offer those candidates advice and volunteer help, she said, but the group does not plan to donate to campaigns or spend money on the election.

The coalition cannot out fundraise well-funded candidates, said Batts. But they will be able to do volunteer canvassing. It’s a tactic that has worked for opponents, like Stand for Children, she said. “They get out early, they get out in force, and they are always there. We know that that works.”

One of the big issues for the group, said Batts, is pushing the district to improve neighborhood schools rather than merely offer students access to choice programs, such as magnet or innovation schools.

Even if school board candidates backed by the coalition are not able to win, the campaign will help get the word out in the community, she said.

“Our job is to inspire the public to really think critically about some of the decisions that are being made,” Batts said. “Win or lose, that’s a good thing.”

The candidates so far

Mary Ann Sullivan is a former Democratic state lawmaker who won a seat representing the district at-large in 2014. She has largely supported Ferebee’s administration. Sullivan said she is running again because she wants to finish work the district has begun, including increasing teacher pay and closing and redesigning high schools.

“I just think it’s absolutely critical that we don’t reverse course,” she said.

Evan Hawkins is a parent at the Center for Inquiry at School 70 who is running for the board seat in District 3. It includes the north side of the district and is currently held by Bentley.

Hawkins serves as executive director of facilities and procurement at Marian University, and he previously worked as chief operating officer for the Tindley charter network. He said he is running for the board because he wants all students in the district to have the same quality education as his daughter.

“There are two IPS’s,” he said. “That’s just a problem. It’s a moral obligation for me to step into that.”

Dorene Rodriguez Hoops is running for reelection in District 5, but this will be her first time campaigning. Hoops was chosen by the board to fill a vacant seat when LaNier Echols resigned. A parent at the Center for Inquiry at School 2, Hoops has a background in human resources, but she decided to leave her job to care for her son with cerebral palsy.

As a board member, Hoops said she wants to improve the way the district engages with the community, so that parents, businesses, and community members are continually part of the discussion. “If we involve the community … in early discussions on major changes, as well as just ongoing communication, then there’s no surprises,” she said.