Innovation schools ignite heated debate among school board candidates

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Candidates for the Indianapolis Public Schools Board.

Candidates running for seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools board are sharply divided on one of the most important issues facing the state’s largest district — whether it should collaborate with charter schools.

At a forum hosted by the NAACP and Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis last night, school board candidates largely agreed on some issues, including the need to provide social services to high-poverty students and the importance of paying teachers well.

But the candidates were far apart on the question of innovation schools, which have charter-like flexibilities and are not unionized but are considered part of the district. The role of innovation schools in IPS is contentious, and it is likely to be the defining issue of the school board race.

Innovation schools began in Indianapolis just a few years ago, and the district has embraced them. A new wave of education reformers landed seats on the IPS school board in the 2014 and 2012 elections. The reformers, who generally support charter schools and working with outside operators to improve struggling schools, currently have a solid majority on the board. The current board has converted several schools to innovation status, but the move has drawn the ire of the teachers union and many community members.

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.

Leaders of the NAACP and Concern Clergy, which sponsored last night’s candidates forum, are among the critics of innovation schools. They say that getting more information to voters is key to turning the tide in the district.

“We are awake, and we want to be informed, and we need to make the best decision for our children,” said David Greene, President of Concerned Clergy. “In the past we’ve assumed other people would do it — 2016 is the year for us to do it.”

The groups have held a series of forums this summer and they plan to host two more in the fall, though dates and times have not yet been finalized.

The focus of the forum last night was autonomy, innovation and charter schools, which are pieces of a district strategy designed to shift power from the central office by giving more flexibility and responsibility to principals and relying on outside charter operators to turn around failing schools.

The forum featured seven of the nine candidates in the race, including incumbents Michael O’Connor, Diane Arnold and Sam Odle and challengers Ramon Batts, Larry Vaughn, Jim Grim and Elizabeth Gore.

The discussion of innovation schools focused on Purdue Polytechnic Institute, a planned high school founded by Purdue University that aims to open next fall as an innovation network school in IPS. The school leaders received a fellowship from the Mind Trust, which supports charter and innovation school leaders, in the same week the district announced a three-year plan to close underused high schools.

Current board member Michael O’Connor said that the high school, which has a charter from the mayor’s office, will open in Indianapolis regardless of what the board does. The only question is whether the district will work with the school.

“Where there are people who want to work on innovation and reaching kids and making their future brighter,” O’Connor said, “I will stand to work with and cooperate with them.”

But other candidates were more skeptical.

Ramon Batts, who has a son in the math and science magnet program at Arsenal Technical High School, said there are already opportunities for IPS students to prepare for Purdue, and the district shouldn’t open a new school with new students.

“Why can’t Purdue come in and partner with IPS at the schools that already exist and put their programs in those schools?” he asked. “Why does another whole school have to be created?”

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.