Who Is In Charge

O’Brien might be state board’s choice to share some of Ritz’s duties

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz will have a new partner managing the Indiana State Board of Education next month, and it might be a board member who often disagrees with her.

A push by several members of the board could make Sarah O’Brien, a first-grade teacher from Avon, the vice chairwoman next month, a new position created by the legislature that will share some powers with Ritz.

Cari Whicker, a board member and teacher, told Chalkbeat today that a majority of board members agree that O’Brien’s longevity on the board and experience could make her a good match for vice chairwoman.

“Sarah will be a great fit for that position,” Whicker said. “And I’m optimistic we can put her in that position because she’s had a lot of history on the board. She’s a fellow teacher on the board, and obviously I’m supportive of that, and she’s always calm and respectful and poised and obviously would do a good job in this role.”

If elected by a majority of the state board, O’Brien would lead the board if Ritz is absent. Ritz and O’Brien would be equally responsible for compiling meeting agendas and taking recommendations from other board members, according to the new law.

Whicker said the position also would relieve pressure on Ritz and future board leaders to be present at every meeting where the board might need to be represented, such as a public hearings. Giving board members more opportunities to lead is better for everyone, she said.

“I think we better serve the board, too, because it’s an awfully big position, and if we can spread it out, it helps everybody out,” Whicker said.

But Ritz has strongly opposed the suggestion that she should share her power to lead the board.

Senate Bill 1, a focal point of this year’s legislative session, sparked rollicking debates over who should lead the state board. Ritz and other critics of the bill asserted it was a way for the Republican-led legislature to oust Ritz from a position of power, but supporters said it was both common and logical for a board to elect its own leader.

The bill, signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence last month, will let Ritz finish out her term as state superintendent and board chairwoman. When a new state superintendent is elected in 2016, that person won’t automatically lead the board — the group will instead vote for a leader from among its members.

Whicker said she believes a majority of the board will support O’Brien for vice chairwoman, based on conversations with others on the board. O’Brien’s father is state Rep. Bill Fine, R-Munster, who backed the bill to create the position of vice chairwoman.

“Certainly more than most are supportive of her,” Whicker said. “And so it would be nice to feel like that’s a consensus when we go into that meeting and not have any contention there in selecting somebody.”

The board met for the first time with newly appointed members last week, and the meeting was absent much of the tension that had been present among some of the outgoing board members.

At last month’s meeting, new board member Lee Ann Kwiatkowski was selected to represent the board on a data recording committee with members of the Indiana General Assembly, and board member Gordon Hendry was picked to remain as leader of the board’s strategic planning committee.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.