IPS superintendent finalists face public interviews next week, but their names are still under wraps

Days ahead of public interviews with superintendent candidates, Indianapolis Public Schools board members say they have three strong choices — but they are waiting to release their names.

The board of the state’s largest district chose finalists for the post after secret interviews last month. School board President Michael O’Connor said he expects to announce the candidates on Friday ahead of public interviews Tuesday. The board is also soliciting interview questions from the public. The board hopes to name a new superintendent by the end of June.

In the meantime, school board members are keeping the identities of the finalists under wraps.

The only applicant for the post who is publicly known is interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, who has led the district since former Superintendent Lewis Ferebee left in January. Johnson has declined to say whether she is still in the running.

It would be stunning if Johnson — who is widely supported by city leaders who favor district collaboration with charter schools — were not among the finalists. But critics of Ferebee’s administration have raised concerns about her qualifications. And board members say she is not the inevitable choice for the permanent superintendent post.

“I don’t think she’s a shoo-in, no. Do I think she’s a good candidate? Yes,” said school board member Venita Moore, who declined to confirm whether Johnson is still in the running.

Moore said that based on community input, she was looking for a leader who is familiar with Indianapolis, understands urban education, and is able to listen and engage the community.

The job, which had 11 applicants, attracted fewer candidates than she expected, Moore said. But ultimately, “we had good candidates,” she said. “I think the city will be pleased.”

The public will be able to submit questions in advance of the public interviews and observe, but board members will ask the questions, O’Connor said.

Board member Susan Collins said that although the officials have already had a chance to meet with the finalists, the public interviews will still be valuable. In addition to giving the community a voice in the process, she hopes to see how candidates react to public scrutiny.

“For me, personally, it also is giving me the opportunity to hear from the community what their concerns are related to the superintendent,” Collins said.

The public interviews will also be a chance for parents, educators, and advocates to get insight into the candidates for the district’s next leader.

One of the most influential players in Indianapolis education is The Mind Trust, a non-profit that supports charter and innovation schools, which are part of the district but managed by outside operators. When it comes to the public interviews, CEO Brandon Brown said the most pressing question is how the next superintendent plans to improve the district’s lowest-performing schools.

“I’m going to be listening for a very bold agenda specific to how we’re going to improve academic outcomes for students of color,” Brown said.

Charity Scott, executive director of the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is critical of innovation schools, said that she is interested in hearing the candidates’ views on whether to add more of the independent schools.

Scott also wants to hear the candidates discuss how they would engage the community. Groups like The Mind Trust and the Indy Chamber have significant influence in the district, she said. “How do you balance it out with genuine community engagement … so it doesn’t seem like you’re just going through the motions?”

Although some critics are concerned that the decision has been all but made, several school board members insist they are open-minded. Board member Elizabeth Gore said that she does not yet have a favorite and she is still evaluating the finalists.

“I’ve listened to the community,” she said. “I’m really serious about trying to make sure that we get a good fit for IPS and somebody that will be able to stay in the district and help to make the district that we need for our children.”