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Expected low turnout makes IPS races hard to predict

November 4, 2014

Huge spending by some of the candidates and low expected voter turnout are making Tuesday’s hotly contested Indianapolis Public Schools board election hard to predict.

On the line is the district’s future direction. Will it continue to move toward cooperation with charter schools and the business and philanthropic community, as the current board majority would prefer? Or will the new board have a majority more inclined to slow that trend and reconsider the move toward more aggressive reforms?

There are three seats up for a vote, and three incumbents—Annie Roof, Michael Brown and Samantha Adair-White—fighting for survival against a financial onslaught aiming to defeat them. Polls in Marion County will be open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday. Voters will find the school board race on the back of the ballot.

The challengers are:

-- School board president Roof is running against former State Democratic Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan, Light of the World Church Pastor David Hampton, Change & Restoration Church pastor and IPS athletic coach Ramon Batts and Butler University economics professor Josh Owens.

-- District 3: Adair-White faces former school board member Kelly Bentley and Fall Creek Academy charter school dean James Turner for control over the seat that serves the North part of the district.

-- District 5: Brown is the longest-serving board member, and faces Carpe Diem Meridian charter school dean LaNier Echols for a seat that serves the Northwest side of the district and parts of downtown.

How much is too much for a candidate to spend on an IPS school board seat? That question has been a central issue in the race.

The trio of candidates endorsed by Stand for Children and the Indy Chamber—Sullivan, Bentley and Echols—and one other candidate—Hampton—have all raised at least $20,000 and collectively raised more than $120,000, according to a campaign finance report released earlier this month. The incumbents in the three races altogether raised less than $6,000.

In addition to that money, Stand For Children has run its own campaigns in support of its three endorsed candidates and won’t say how much it is spending. Some of the money to support those endorsed candidates is also coming from outside Indiana, from people like Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg and Silicon Valley-based Teach for America board member Arthur Rock. The incumbents, on the other hand, have earned endorsements from the Indiana State Teachers Association and unions representing other IPS employees.

Batts, who has raised among the least of all 10 candidates, said voters should be skeptical of out-of-state influence in the race and vote for candidates who are supported by local contributors. School board President Annie Roof has refused to take out-of-state money in the election.

“You have businessmen and women who are putting (up) a lot of money for a school board race that’s going to yield a person $6,000 for that year,” Batts said, “and they have not done anything at all to make sure the graduation rates are going up, that children get to school on time, that our bus drivers have what they need. Why?”

Stand for Children executive director Justin Ohlemiller defended its group’s spending on the race, and the heavy contributions pouring into some candidates.

“This is one of the most important positions we can elect in our community,” Ohlemiller said. “These are people making decisions to run the largest school district in our city and one of the largest in our state. Their job is incredibly important. It shouldn’t come down to a coin flip or a guessing game in the ballot box. We take seriously our role to educate the public on candidates who (will) move IPS forward.”

The competition has become especially expensive considering the historically poor voter turnout for school board elections and the lack of a high profile state or national race, such as governor or president, which usually bring out more voters.

That’s been true even after lawmakers switched school board races from the spring to the fall to try to boost turnout.

In the 2012 election—the first fall vote for an IPS school board race — the one citywide vote for an at-large seat on the board still brought voter turnout of less than 10 percent of registered voters who were eligible to cast ballots.

Sullivan said she hopes this race is a step toward building voter interest in the IPS school board.

“It was one of the least known, cared about and participated in public offices around,” she said of school board elections before the change to fall voting. “I would be thrilled if we can start elevating the discussion around education. If board races drive that, that would be a fantastic outcome in itself.”

There were 59,980 votes cast in the 2012 IPS at-large race, according to the Marion County Board of Elections, and 640,675 registered voters in the county. In the at large race, winner Sam Odle earned about 15,000 votes more than challenger Larry Vaughn.

Even so, the turnout in 2012 was much better than in previous years. Voter turnout in the 2010 at-large race, for example, was less than half of the 2012 turnout. Roof earned 4,505 votes in the 2010 race, earning her an at-large seat on the board over six challengers. There were 18,058 total votes cast in the IPS race, and 585,817 registered Marion County voters that year.

With only four challengers to fight off this year, Roof said this year’s race is no more competitive than 2010, but the recent interest from outside groups in this year’s election concerns her.

“I don’t think businesses giving money to the school board race makes us seem like we’re important,” Roof said. “I think it makes it seem like we’re profitable, and that’s what people are looking for.”

Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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