Who Is In Charge

Inner circle: Here is the team helping Ferebee chart a new course for Indianapolis schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has been leading Indianapolis’ largest school district for nearly five years. But in recent months, his circle of advisers has seen some notable changes.

Two leaders who played essential roles in crafting the district plan to close nearly half its high schools and create specialized academies at the remaining campuses have left for other jobs. And a new chief of staff has joined the district as Ferebee’s deputy.

As 2018 begins, the district is at a watershed moment that includes redesigning high schools and appealing to voters for $936 million more in school funding over the next eight years. Here are the eight lieutenants who report directly to Ferebee.

Ahmed Young, chief of staff

PHOTO: Provided by Indianapolis Public Schools
Ahmed Young
  • Salary: $150,000
  • Hired: 2017
  • Duties: General counsel, managing a portfolio of issues related to risk management, IPS Police, student assignment, human resources, and research, accountability and evaluation.
  • His story: Young is the newest member of Ferebee’s team. Before joining in October, he oversaw charter schools for the administration of Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett. Young has a background in education and in law. He taught middle school in Lawrence Township and New York City schools, then practiced law as a prosecutor for the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office and at Bose McKinney & Evans. Young has a secondary education degree and a law degree from Indiana University.

Le Boler, chief strategist

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Le Boler
  • Salary: $136,000
  • Hired: 2013
  • Duties: Leads strategic planning, public relations, and parent involvement. She is responsible for fundraising and collaboration with outside organizations.
  • Bio: Boler is one of Ferebee’s closest advisors. She worked with Ferebee in Durham Public Schools, where she was a program strategist, and joined him in Indianapolis at the start of his administration. She also worked with him at Guilford County Schools. She started her career in education through administration support roles for districts in North Carolina. Boler earned a B.A. in business leadership from Ashford University, a mostly online college based in San Diego, and she is pursuing a certificate in strategy and performance management from Georgetown University.

Weston Young, chief financial manager

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Weston Young
  • Salary: $140,000
  • Hired: 2015
  • Duties: Oversees budgeting and management of finances. Participates in procurement, accounting, financial reporting, audits, investments, debt service, and economic development issues.
  • His story: Young came to Indianapolis from the private sector, where he was a wealth manager in Zionsville. Previously he worked as a manager, tax consultant, and accountant. He is a CPA with a degree in accounting and business from Taylor University.

Aleesia Johnson, innovation officer

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Aleesia Johnson
  • Salary: $125,000
  • Hired: 2015
  • Duties: Oversees innovation schools, including supporting schools, and developing processes for recruiting and selecting school leadership, evaluating existing schools and ending contracts with underperforming schools.
  • Her story: When Johnson joined the superintendent’s team, it was a clear sign of the district’s growing collaboration with charter schools. Before joining IPS, she led KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory, the local campus of one of the largest national charter networks. She previously worked for Teach for America and as a middle school teacher. Johnson has a BA from Agnes Scott College, a master’s degree in social work from University of Michigan, and a master’s degree in teaching from Oakland City University.

Scott Martin, deputy superintendent of operations

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Scott Martin
  • Salary: $150,000
  • Hired: 2014
  • Duties: Oversees all non-academic operations, including facilities, construction management, maintenance, transportation, technology, and child nutrition.
  • His story: Martin came to Indianapolis from Davenport, Iowa, where he oversaw support services for a district of about 16,000 students. He also previously spent nearly a decade with the district in Columbus, Indiana. He has a degree in organizational leadership from Indiana Wesleyan University.

Tammy Bowman, curriculum officer

  • Salary: $125,000
  • Hired: 2014
  • Duties: Oversees curriculum, professional development, gifted, and prekindergarten programs.
  • Bio: Bowman came to Indianapolis from North Carolina, where she oversaw a high school academy for five years. She was director of the early college program, AVID coordinator, Title I coordinator, and a beginning teacher coordinator. She previously taught elementary and middle school. She has education degrees from University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a counseling degree from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, and a certificate in administration from Western Carolina University.

Joe Gramelspacher, special project director

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Joe Gramelspacher
  • Salary: $100,000
  • Hired: 2014
  • Duties: Manages the administrative affairs of the Superintendent’s Office, coordinates the monthly work of the Board of School Commissioners, and leads and serves on special project teams.
  • His story: Gramelspacher previously served as special assistant to the superintendent. He began his career in education as a math teacher with Teach for America in Colorado and then in Indianapolis. He has degrees in finance and economics from Indiana University and is a 2017 Broad Resident.

Zach Mulholland, board administrator

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Zach Mulholland
  • Salary: $100,000
  • Hired: 2015
  • Duties: Manages operations for the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, including developing board policy, developing agendas and schedules, and assisting the board president.
  • His story: Before joining the district, Mulholland was a research analyst for the Indiana University Public Policy Institute Center for Urban Policy and the Environment. He has degrees in political science and economics from Wabash College and a law degree from Indiana University.

silver screen

United Federation of Teachers drops more than $1 million on new ad campaign

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/UFT
In a new ad released by The United Federation of Teachers, a teacher crouches at a student's desk and smiles.

Amid a wave of teacher activism nationwide and major threats to the influence of unions, the United Federation of Teachers is expected to spend more than $1 million on a primetime television and streaming ad featuring local educators.

The 30-second spot hit the airwaves on Jan. 23 and will run through Feb. 1, with an expected audience of 11 million television viewers and 4 million impressions online, according to the union.

Featuring a chorus of singing students, bright classrooms, and a glamour shot of the city, the ad is called “Voice.” A diverse group of teachers declares: “Having a voice makes us strong. And makes our public schools even stronger.” It ends with the message, “The United Federation of Teachers. Public school proud.”

The union, the largest local in the country, typically runs ads this time of year, as the legislative session in Albany heats up and city budget negotiations kick-off. But this time, the campaign launches against the backdrop of an emboldened teaching force across the country, with a teacher strike in Los Angeles and another potentially starting next week in Denver.

UFT is also eager to prove its worth after the recent Janus Supreme Court ruling, which could devastate membership by banning mandatory fees to help pay for collective bargaining. So far, membership has remained strong but the union could face headwinds from organized right-to-work groups and the sheer number of new hires that come into the New York City school system every year.

The ad will run locally during programs including “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Good Morning America,” on networks such as MSNBC and CNN, and on the streaming service Hulu. You can watch the ad here.

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”


Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says


“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.