Who Is In Charge

New board president wants a ‘world-class education’ for every student in Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Michael O'Connor was elected president of the Indianapolis Public Schools board.

A new leader has been chosen to helm the board of Indianapolis’ largest school district.

School board member Michael O’Connor was unanimously selected Monday to serve as president for 2018. He replaced Mary Ann Sullivan, who had served as president for two years.

O’Connor was initially appointed to fill a vacant seat on the board in 2015 and elected in 2016. He is currently the senior director of state government affairs at Eli Lilly and Company and previously served as deputy mayor under Mayor Bart Peterson. He represents district 1, which includes the near eastside.

As president, O’Connor said that he would make sure the district is open and transparent about its decisions.

“I pledge that we will continue to work very hard as a board and continue to make this a district that every one of our students [will] have the opportunity to have a world-class education,” he said.

The board also elected Venita Moore, who is in her first term, to serve as vice-president, and Elizabeth Gore, who previously served on the board and was reelected in 2016.

“We have a lot more work to do, and I have a lot of confidence in Commissioner O’Connor to lead the charge,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

The board members are largely united in their support for controversial policies — such as partnering with charter operators to run schools, giving principals more flexibility, and closing high schools — so the leadership is unlikely to shift the direction of the district. But this is a politically significant moment for the district, and the president could play an essential role over the next year. Three of the district’s high schools will close, and voters will face referendums to raise $936 million for the city’s largest district.

Former-board president Mary Ann Sullivan lauded the work of the administration and her fellow board members during her term.

“Over the past several years, we have thoughtfully and methodically laid the foundation for a new type of urban school district,” Sullivan said, “One that believes all students can achieve at high levels, allocates resources fairly and equitably, operates efficiently, is designed for continuous improvement, and understands that teachers and school leaders together with their families, are best positioned to make key decisions about schools.”

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.