New Indianapolis Public School Board members Mary Ann Sullivan, Kelly Bentley and LaNier Echols together raised nearly $200,000 last year to support their winning campaigns in what ended up as the most expensive school board election in the city’s recent history.
Three of the seven defeated candidates did not file final campaign finance reports by today’s deadline. Based on the reports that were filed with the Marion County Election Board, and prior reports filed in October, the losing candidates were known to have raised about $41,000.
Sullivan raised more than $73,000 for her campaign, followed by Echols with more than $65,000 and Bentley with more than $52,000.
But missing from campaign finance reports that were due today was any accounting of how much money was spent by outside interest groups, notably the advocacy group Stand for Children, an organization that pushes for change in IPS and in statewide education issues.
Stand for Children endorsed Sullivan, Bentley and Echols and ran independent campaigns on their behalf. They sent out mailers endorsing the candidates, and hired workers on Election Day to promote them outside the polls. But the group says it won’t say how much it spent on those efforts.
An end-of-year report filed with the Indiana Secretary of State said Stand for Children did not spend any money on the school board race through its political action committee, which was set up to support its political advocacy.
Instead, Stand for Children director Justin Ohlemiller said the group’s support of the school board candidates was paid through the organization’s national office, which is organized under a section of the tax code known as a 501(c)(4). Under the rules of that section, he said, the organization can be active in politics but is not required to disclose all its political activities. It also allowed the group to run its own autonomous campaigns on behalf of the candidates, instead of simply donating to their existing efforts.
Ohlemiller said there was nothing unusual about the group’s approach.
“We’re adhering to the law and what’s required for reporting,” he said. “There are (c)(4) organizations, not just ours, that activate around campaigns to elect leaders that the organization backs. This has become part of the body politics in our country and another way for organizations to support candidates.”
Final campaign finance reports were due today to the Marion County Election Board and shed light on where the money came for the huge war chests the winners built.
The newly installed school board members overwhelmingly outspent and then crushed three incumbents and a handful of other challengers in a race where outside spending by Stand for Children and campaign contributions from out-of-state donors quickly became hot-button issues.
Sullivan, a former Democratic state representative, raised $73,709 for her run against four challengers for a citywide at-large seat, according to the new filings. Sullivan, who raised most of her money from local education advocates and others in Indianapolis, ousted former school board president and IPS parent Annie Roof with 46 percent of the vote. Roof, who raised about $4,500, finished the race with 20 percent of the vote.
“I don’t think this should come as any big surprise,” Sullivan said, referring to the spending. “With the stakes higher than ever and with a higher profile election, you’re going to have more competitive races.”
Sullivan’s contributions range from $500 from former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson to $5,000 from philanthropist Al Hubbard, who sponsors an IPS teaching award with his wife. Sullivan also received $2,000 from Hoosiers for Quality Education, $5,000 from the Indianapolis Board of Realtors, and nearly $19,000 in both direct and in-kind donations from the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce’s advocacy arm.
But unsuccessful school board candidate Ramon Batts, who raised $582 throughout the entirety of the campaign, said he thought there was too much spending by the winning candidates. Batts earned 9 percent of the vote while losing to Sullivan.
“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” Batts said. “I hope that they do the right thing for the children, and not for all the people that gave them the money.”
Also defeated by Sullivan were Butler University instructor Josh Owens, who raised $2,708 last year, and Light of the World Christian Church Pastor David Hampton, who has not yet filed a final report with the Marion County Election Board. Hampton’s pre-election reports listed at least $29,000 in contributions.
Echols, a charter school dean, raised $65,028 to oust longtime board member Michael Brown from his seat serving the Northwest side. Notable contributions to Echols’ campaign include $7,000 from a Political Action Committee called Leadership for Educational Equity, which received most of its contributions from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She also received $5,000 from Intel Corp. founder and Teach for America board member Arthur Rock.
Bentley, who returned to the board in January after a four-year absence, raised $52,677 to defeat Samantha Adair-White and charter school dean James Turner, another challenger. Neither Adair-White, who had raised $1,100 by the pre-election filing deadline, nor Turner filed final reports by the deadline.
Notable contributions to Bentley’s campaign include $750 from Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice CEO Robert Enlow and $200 from The Mind Trust CEO David Harris, along with sizable in-kind donations from the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.
“If you don’t reach the voters, they’re going in and voting blind,” Bentley said. “I’m not sure that’s a good way to elect school board members or anybody else for that matter. Virtually all the money I raised was used to reach voters.”
But Sullivan, less than a month into her four-year term overseeing the city’s schools, said she acknowledges that campaign dollars overall could be better put to use.
“I would rather see resources go to other places than PR and mailers and all of that,” Sullivan said. “However, that’s the system we have. Until we change that, an important quality to be a candidate is your ability to fund-raise.”