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IPS School Board candidate forum showed differences on key issues

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Sidener Academy was the site of an IPS School Board candidate forum Oct. 3, sponsored by the Sidener PTA.

By El’ad Nichols-Kaufman

An IPS School Board Candidate forum Oct. 3 focused on many contentious issues, with serious divides on issues like innovation schools, the all-choice model and how to approach transparency.

Nearly all of the 10 candidates for the three school board seats attended the forum at Sidener Academy, sponsored by the Sidener PTA. Incumbent from District 3, Mary Ann Sullivan sent a representative because she was at an education conference in Colorado. Citizens will vote for board members in the Nov. 6 mid-term elections, along with a $252 million referendum for the IPS district.

In their opening statements, most of the candidates focused on their connection to IPS, which ranged from being IPS parents, like Joanna Krumel, Evan Hawkins, Michele Lorbieski, Taria Slack, Dorene Hoops and Mary Ann Sullivan, IPS teachers like Susan Coons Collins and IPS alumni like Sherry Lynne Shelton. They also focused on their past non-for-profit work and public service, as well as expertise qualifying them to serve IPS.

Most of the night was devoted to audience questions, many of which prompted far different responses from candidate to candidate. A question was asked early on about innovation schools, possibly the most divisive issue in this election. The question itself was greeted with thunderous applause from the audience.

Taria Slacks opposed the innovation schools, saying there is no evidence they work. Sherry Lynne Shelton agreed and emphasized that innovation schools can choose the best students. Michelle Lorbieski criticized the way IPS judges innovation schools, which she said creates an illusion they are doing well even if they are still failing. Krummel voiced her support for some innovation schools, but said, “I see no reason… why they should not meet IPS ideals,” including letting teachers join unions and organize. The fact that innovation school teachers’ right to organize is not protected is a major concern to many teachers and labor advocates.

“They are charters, with their own boards,” said Susan Coons Collins. “Indianapolis Public Schools is looking more and more like a real estate company.”

The incumbents Dorene Hoops and Mary Ann Sullivan’s representative as well as Evan Hawkins argued for adding more innovation schools, saying that they give students more choices and opportunity. Hawkins went so far as to say that innovation schools are just like the CFI schools were 20 years ago.

One question addressed the influence and impact of the Mind Trust and Stand for Children. The Mind Trust is an Indianapolis-based organization which works on privatizing public education by creating innovation and charter schools, while Stand for Children is a  501(c)(4) non-for-profit advocacy group which, on top of lobbying governments, has been said to operate as a way for corporate donors to sponsor school board races without openly doing so. Candidates Slacks, Shelton, Lorbieski, Krumel and Collins all condemned those organizations, while the incumbents Hoops and Slacks, who have received endorsement and funding from these organizations dodged the question.

“They are an important piece of the pie,” said Hawkins, who is also supported financially and politically by those organizations.

Another issue discussed was the issue of vocational training and specialization in high school, and how much of it is needed. Michele Lorbieski argued that it is too early to ask high schoolers to decide what they want to do with their lives, and that effort should not go to career programs but instead to improving the general education provided by these high schools.

Sherry Lynne Shelton said that career and vocational programs should begin as early as kindergarten and that students should be tracked from the youngest age possible.

Candidates also discussed the influence the Indiana Chamber of Commerce has over the district, and the new positions which will be funded by the organization. Some like Shelton, Lobrieski, Collins and Slacks worried about the Chamber’s power, with Krumel concerned about how “the chamber referred to students as workers”. Hawkins, Hoops and Sullivan said they believe this partnership is important. Other questions included a parent who wondered how the candidates will fight for kids in the State House, and another asked about magnet programs and the choice system.

The Sidener PTA gave two questions for which the candidates had time to prepare. The first one was “What grade would you give IPS, the district, on fostering authentic parent engagement, and what would you change?” The candidates’ views on IPS’s parent engagement were equally bleak, with grades ranging from C for effort to a flat out F. The incumbents brought up some steps the district has taken, while others pointed out that IPS is only transparent if you go looking for the information they put out. Collins brought up the fact that IPS only uses electronic means to contact parents, and many suggested that IPS needs to reach out more to parents and involve them in roundtable discussions on serious issues like school closings and opening of innovation programs. All of the candidates agreed individual schools do far better than the district as a whole.

The second question asked candidates what they think the biggest problem IPS is facing. Commissioner Hoops said that it is the lack of good schools in every neighborhood. Taria Slack said that it is the fact IPS is not spending money responsibly, which is causing it to drop into debt. Sherry Lynne Shelton echoed this statement and went even further saying that she is “not a fan of the referendum” She argued that “no, I don’t want my parents who are 81 and 86 having their property tax increased”. Evan Hawkins said, on the same note, that IPs needs a proper plan for its finances, and one that is actually long term, not just a year or two. Lorbieski worried about the lack of good high schools in the district, driving middle school students to go to private high schools, charter schools or out of district. Later in the debate, Hawkins brought up the shocking statistic that only 26% of IPS middle schoolers stay in the district for high school. Mary Ann Sullivan’s representative added that many high schoolers don’t have enough options after high school. Krummel said that IPS isn’t taking care of their most vulnerable students well enough, and suggested putting less police and more social workers in schools, as well as implementing restorative justice practices. Collins agreed with the issue of fiscal responsibility, but emphasized diversity, particularly in popular programs like CFI or the Butler Lab School.

To see the full forum, CLICK HERE


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