The Indianapolis Public School Board has been transformed since 2012 by outsiders pushing changes but former state Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan could be the first one to be picked as board president.
Sullivan said she’s interested in the job, and none of her fellow board members has yet emerged as a potential challenger. The new president will be named at Friday’s organizational meeting to begin the new year.
“I’ve expressed an interest in that role,” Sullivan said. “We’ll see how things go. I’ve been working on a lot of these issues for a long, long time. … I’d be very interested in playing a larger leadership role.”
Sullivan, a Democrat who sometimes bucked her party by supporting charter schools and other reforms was defeated in a run for the Indiana Senate in 2012 but then won a school board seat in a landslide in 2014.
“It requires somebody with a lot of skills in diplomacy,” said board member Kelly Bentley, who served as president during a prior term on the board. “I think (Mary Ann) will do a good job of that.”
The board has not yet chosen or publicly discussed as a group who will serve as the next president. But Chalkbeat interviewed several board members, and none expressed interest in leading the board or knew of any other members who planned to throw their hats in the ring. The field is also narrowed because four of the seven board seats are up for election this fall, and some members are reluctant to choose a president who will be on the ballot.
Serving as board president is a significant commitment, said board member Sam Odle. He had expressed interest in the position in past years, but he is no longer looking to be board president, he said.
Although Sullivan is relatively new to the IPS board, she is a political veteran and long-time advocate for education reform, dating to her time as an IPS parent. As member of Indiana House of Representatives, she was known for supporting policies like accountability and school choice.
The board has gotten a complete overhaul thanks to the well-financed and highly contested elections of 2012 and 2014 — six of the seven members now consistently support education reform proposals such as school autonomy and innovation schools.
But Sullivan would be the first of the newly elected members to lead the IPS board. The current president, Diane Arnold, is supportive of the same reform efforts but pre-dates the latest push for change. She was elected in 2004, before the board shakeup. The shift would be largely symbolic.
“(Mary Ann) represents some of the changes the board majority has made clear that we want to move toward,” Bentley said.
The board has demonstrated strong support for district plans such as reducing the central office, increasing freedom for principals and partnering with outside organizations to manage some schools. The next year could be politically volatile, however, because four seats are on the ballot this fall.
What isn’t clear yet, is who will for run those seats — whether incumbents or challengers — and which races will be the most competitive. The board members up for election include Odle, Arnold, Michael O’Connor and Gayle Cosby.
Keeping on experienced members will help the board pursue its goals, said Odle, who is planning to run again.
O’Connor — who joined the board this fall, after Caitlin Hannon left the board for a Mind Trust fellowship — said he is thinking carefully about whether he has the time to run for reelection or serve another term on the board. He expects to decide within the next couple of months.
Arnold and Cosby did not respond to requests for comment.
Because the election is non-partisan, there is no primary and the filing deadline is not until Aug. 26. The election is Nov. 8.
Cosby won her seat in 2012 with the help of significant funding from organizations that support reform, including the Indiana chapter of advocacy group Stand for Children, the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and Indiana Democrats for Education Reform.
But as a board member, she has sometimes opposed policies favored by reformers, particularly plans to partner with outside organizations to manage IPS schools. With her seat up for election, some of those who helped her win last time could work against her reelection.
Executive Director of Stand for Children Indiana, Justin Ohlemiller, declined to discuss whether the group will support Cosby or endorse another candidate this early in the year. But he shared an email from a Stand parent-leader criticizing Cosby.
“Each school board member that decides to run again will have a record, and they’ll have the opportunity … to talk about their record with the parents in the organization,” he said. “Gayle will have that opportunity as well as other incumbents.”