Two high profile Democrats who support school choice and accountability-based education reforms are strongly considering bids for the Indianapolis Public School Board.
Kelly Bentley is a former IPS school board member and long-time critic of the district’s prior leadership, which she said resisted change in her time on the board. Former state representative Mary Ann Sullivan was sometimes the lone legislative Democrat voting in favor of charter schools and other education policy ideas that are more identified with Republicans in Indiana. Both were involved with Democrats for Education Reform, a group that promotes ideas like charter schools and school accountability to Democrats.
Bentley said she is giving serious consideration to run, but said it was too early to announce a decision. Sullivan said she has officially converted a campaign committee set up for her 2012 state senate run to a school board exploratory committee.
“I am absolutely giving it some very serious consideration,” Sullivan said of a potential board run. “It feels like the right time and right place to put my focus.”
Bentley said the work of new Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has prompted her to consider a try to return to her prior seat on the board.
“I’m motivated by all the positive energy I see happening right now,” she said. “It’s super exciting to focus locally on what’s possible.”
If the two join the race, it would be mark the second consecutive school board contest featuring candidates who share what previously had been an outsider view of IPS. All have said the central office should be significantly reduced, school autonomy increased and cooperation pursued with charter schools, which the district traditionally had viewed as competitors.
Bentley lives in the district represented by Samantha Adair-White, who is in the final year of her first term on the board and has not announced if she plans to seek re-election. If she runs, Sullivan said she would likely seek the at-large seat held by school board President Annie Roof. Roof, also finishing her first term in office, last week announced on Facebook that she plans to run again.
The other board member who’s term is up this year is Michael Brown, who has represented the Northwest side of the city for more than a decade. He also said he plans to run again.
In 2012, the IPS school board election produced a sea-change result. Long-term incumbents Mary Busch and Marianna Zaphiriou, strong White supporters, retired and were replaced by Caitilin Hannon and Sam Odle, both of whom pushed for change. Another White ally, Elizabeth Gore, was defeated by Gayle Cosby.
Those three joined with Diane Arnold, who was reelected, to form a new change-oriented majority on the board that quickly set a new direction in 2013. They bought out the contract of former IPS Superintendent Eugene White, cut the budget and hired Ferebee.
Roof, Adair-White and, to a lesser extent, Brown have joined in supporting the new direction in many instances, including the selection of Ferebee. But Brown voted no on some key change-related issues issues, such as White’s buy out and layoffs that resulted from budget cuts.
Ferebee has ruffled the feathers of Democrats, unions and other traditional IPS allies by professing a desire to cooperate with charter schools. He helped write a bill now moving through the legislature which would allow charters to share space in IPS buildings and permit IPS to designate some of its own schools as “innovation schools” run by charter groups or other outside organizations.
Opponents of the bill have complained that it could force teachers out from under union protections and higher IPS wages, as the outside mangers of innovation schools will employ the staff and set those terms.
Sullivan, who left the legislature after an unsuccessful run for the senate in 2012, said the school board’s efforts over the past year to move in a new direction are admirable but the district’s children need more.
Sullivan’s children attended IPS. Her daughter is now a teacher in the district and her grandson attends an IPS school. Her opponent, Roof, is an IPS graduate and her children attend the district.
“One of the things that’s a challenge is the basic fairness for kids throughout the system,” Sullivan said. “Access to a great school is not even throughout the district. It comes through very powerfully in certain neighborhoods. Those kids don’t have a good school option for them.”
Neither Sullivan nor Bentley said they had particularly complaints about Roof or Adair-White, their potential opponents this fall. Both said they were pleased by Ferebee’s efforts, particularly to forge partnerships that would have been unthinkable in the White era.
“As an outsider looking in, I’m really impressed,” Bentley said. “I feel confident that there can be some really significant change in the district that needs to happen. There are some great people on the board. I think I could help support some of the initiatives the superintendent and some of the board members are interested in.”
The addition of Sullivan and Bentley could draw renewed attention to the school board race, and perhaps draw candidates with traditional Democratic views about IPS or with union connections.
Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said decisions about supporting and encouraging candidates is driven by the local union, in this case the Indianapolis Education Association, which she said has not asked for additional help or support. At this point, Meredith said, there are no plans for ISTA involvement in the IPS race.
Still, Sullivan said she expects she and Bentley are not the only ones considering a run.
“It may be an elevated profile race,” she said. “I kind of think that would be a good thing. Maybe we’ll get a lot of conversations going. That would be the best outcome that can come from a highly contesting school board race.”