Top 4 issues the next Indianapolis Public Schools Board will decide

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo

With big changes on the horizon for Indianapolis Public Schools, the winners of the coming election will have huge influence over the future of the district.

The current board has aggressively pursued policies aimed at improving the lowest-performing schools, giving more power to school principals and increasing collaboration with charter schools. Their policies have won praise from national advocates, but they have also inspired frustration and suspicion among many local leaders.

Four of the seven seats are on the ballot, so critics of the board have a chance to take control. A change in orientation could stymie plans already set in motion and alter the direction of schools throughout IPS. One seat is guaranteed to change hands because board member Gayle Cosby, a frequent dissenter, is not running for reelection.

Here are the top four issues the next board will decide:

  1. Which high schools should close?

District leaders unveiled a three-year plan to close several high schools at a school board meeting Tuesday. The plan calls for John Marshall High School to convert to a dedicated middle school. But the blueprint doesn’t specify which other schools will close or even how many.

READ: Find more on this year's races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.
READ: Find more on this year’s races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.

High schools in IPS have far fewer students than they are designed for — some are barely a quarter full — and the district is paying a high price to continue running underused buildings. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s proposal calls for the board to make a decision in 2017, with high schools expected to close in 2019.

At a recent meeting at Northwest High School, students, staff and community members spoke out against closing the school.

“The image of this school has been changing these past couple of years,” said Jeno Shanklin, a senior and football player at Northwest. “We just ask you guys to not only look at statistics but really look around at what’s going on within the school.”

The newest board members will be charged with deciding the future of the district’s high schools — and dealing with the possible backlash.

  1. What IPS schools should convert to the innovation model, and what should happen to ones that exist?

The current board has embraced “innovation” schools, a new model that hands management of individual schools over to outside charter networks or nonprofits. Innovation schools are still considered part of the district when it comes to state funding and student test scores.

The district projects that more than 10 percent of IPS students will enroll in innovation schools this year, a shift that will push funding and decisions from the central office to individual schools. Other innovation schools are in the pipeline, including a community middle school, Purdue’s high school and several other ideas in the early stages of development.

But the proliferation of innovation schools is controversial: Teachers at the schools are not part of the union, and the board has no oversight over their daily operations.

A change in the board’s general orientation could result in fewer schools being converted to innovation status, and the board also could decide against renewing contracts with existing innovation schools.

  1. How should Indianapolis families apply to school?

When Indianapolis families choose schools for their children, they are faced with a sea of options and nearly as many processes — and deadlines — for applying to school.

That’s the problem former-school board member Caitlin Hannon was hoping to solve when she left the board to found the nonprofit Enroll Indy. The organization aims to serve as a unified enrollment service, so families can enroll in IPS magnets, neighborhood schools and charter schools through the website and enrollment centers.

“There are a lot of barriers right now,” Hannon told the school board at a presentation Tuesday. “If we are going to have choice … that needs to be mean choice for every family.”

The IPS board has shown strong interest in unifying enrollment with the city’s charter schools, but the decision on whether to participate in Enroll Indy will rest with the next board.

A board whose majority is less sympathetic to charter schools might be unwilling to make it easier for students to enroll in them.

  1. Should the district stick with superintendent Lewis Ferebee?

The current school board renewed Ferebee’s contract in February — and gave him a big raise — but since then his administration has been hounded by criticism over its handling of sexual abuse allegations involving a school counselor.

District officials waited six days before reporting the abuse to the Indiana Department of Child Services, the Indy Star reported. Two district staffers were fired following the incident, and two more resigned after taking pretrial diversion agreements.

Ferebee has said that he was not aware of the failure to report abuse, but the controversy has continued to simmer, and critics have called for his resignation.

Ultimately, the board is responsible for hiring and firing the superintendent. When a new round of school board members took office in 2013, one of their first moves was offering former-superintendent Eugene White a buyout agreement.

If critics have their way, Ferebee could be the next superintendent whose administration comes to an abrupt end.

Indiana 2016 Election

The biggest donation in the IPS school board race came from an unexpected source

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In the battle for control of the Indianapolis Public School board, the largest single campaign contribution came from an unexpected source: the teachers’ union. But the donation didn’t help the union-backed candidate.

In recent years, IPS board races have been dominated by pro-school reform candidates who have attracted large contributions from deep-pocketed donors. But in other elections — at other times, in other places — it’s common for teachers’ unions to spend big.

That’s what happened this time in Indianapolis.

Critics of the current administration made their first organized bid to unseat incumbent board members in 2016 when they formed the group OurIPS. The group didn’t donate to candidates, but the district-wide candidate the group supported, Jim Grim, did win a $15,000 contribution from the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Despite that cash, all four candidates backed by OurIPS lost on Election Day.

The contribution to Grim’s campaign was revealed in final campaign finance reports due to the Marion County Election Board last week. The disclosures detail fundraising and spending for each school board campaign, but they don’t include groups such as Stand for Children, which sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses but is not required to disclose all of its political activity.

Although the union donation was easily the largest single contribution any candidate received, other candidates did raise more in total. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce spent more overall but gave to four candidates.

Here are the totals for each race:


Grim raised $20,930 during the election. His opponents were incumbent Sam Odle, who raised $31,893, and challenger Elizabeth Gore, who won a surprise victory in the raise. Gore has not filed a finance report, but she told Chalkbeat after the election that she raised about $1,200.

District 1

Incumbent Michael O’Connor vastly out fundraised his opponent in the race, raising $23,543, according to his disclosure. Challenger Christine Prince raised $100.

District 2

Venita Moore, a newcomer who won the seat with support from Stand for Children, raised $25,712. Ramon Batts, who had the support of OurIPS, raised $3,550. Nanci Lacy did not file a report.

District 4

Long-time board member Diane Arnold raised $16,696. Challenger Larry Vaughn did not file a report.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect a new fundraising total for Michael O’Connor, who submitted a corrected disclosure.

day one

Three new members join IPS board, Sullivan elected president

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Five IPS board members were sworn in. Left to right: Elizabeth Gore, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, Diane Arnold, Venita Moore and Michael O'Connor.

Mary Ann Sullivan will lead the Indianapolis Public School board for the second year in a row, bringing a dose of consistency to a board that begins the term with three new members.

At the first meeting of 2017, the seven-member board swore in three new members, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, Elizabeth Gore and Venita Moore, and two returning members, Diane Arnold and Michael O’Connor. In a clear sign of the growing collaboration between the city — which oversees dozens of charter schools — and the school district, the members were sworn in by Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett.

“The decisions you make here profoundly impact not only the students that attend IPS today but … the future of this great city,” Hogsett said. “As our city strives to always better our schools, your individual rules in that effort are critically important to the long-term health and well-being of this city.”

The new board unanimously elected Sullivan as president, O’Connor as vice-president and Gore as secretary. Sullivan, who was also president in 2016, joined the board two years ago as part of a wave of members who support dramatic changes aimed at improving the lowest performing schools.

“I will do my best to maintain the progress that we are making on so many fronts and to keep our sense of urgency,” Sullivan said. “I am very, very confident that this board is ready to provide the leadership needed to transform lives.”

Two of the new board members won spots following a bruising election fight for control of the board between advocates for radically overhauling the district by embracing policies such as partnerships with charter schools and critics who favor more traditional management. The third new member was chosen by the board to replace LaNier Echols, who resigned following the election.

The three newest board members bring a wide range of experience to the board. Here’s a little about each:

Dorene Rodriguez Hoops is the most mysterious new board member because she was chosen by the board to fill a vacancy, rather than going through the election process. She represents District 5, which covers the northwest section of IPS. Although her positions on many of the biggest issues facing the district are not clearly fleshed out, her personal background gives her a unique perspective on many of the issues facing IPS families. A first-generation Mexican American and fluent Spanish speaker, Hoops is the only Latina board member. She also is the only current parent on the board, with a son enrolled at Center for Inquiry School 27. Her son has special needs, and she said her work advocating for his education renewed her commitment to ensuring educational access.

Elizabeth Gore defeated Sam Odle for an at-large seat representing the entire district. Although she is newly elected, this is not her first time on the board. Gore served a term on the board before losing a reelection bid in 2012, when a wave of critics of former-superintendent Eugene White captured control. In her bid for reelection, Gore was not backed by school-reform supporters or the organized opposition, and her victory was something of a surprise. She is a graduate of Crispus Attucks High School and her three children graduated from Arsenal Technical High School, where she led the parent teacher association.

Venita Moore won a three-way race to replace former board member Gayle Cosby, a frequent critic of the administration. She represents District 2, which covers the northeast section of IPS. A business consultant with experience running a state agency, Moore was endorsed by pro-reform groups including Stand for Children. But she does not have a significant record of political work on education, so her approach to the school board is still something of an unknown. Moore is also an IPS graduate, and her daughter graduated from Crispus Attucks High School.