It’s a familiar story: A big influx of money is shaking up a school board race in Indianapolis, with tens of thousands of dollars coming from out-of-state school reform advocates.
But this time there’s a twist: The money is going to a candidate in Washington Township, a district with just 11,000 students where there have been few battles in the school reform war.
In a district where candidates typically spend less than $10,000 on even the most competitive races, Deitric Hall, a local teacher, has raised more than $32,000. Nearly all that money is from a single political action committee: Leadership for Educational Equity, a Washington D.C.-based PAC that supports Teach for America alumni running for public office.
It’s a small-scale version of a phenomenon that has played out in urban districts around the country as outside campaign contributions have increasingly influenced pivotal school board races. In Indianapolis Public Schools, outside contributions helped radically reshape the board in 2012 and 2014, when out-of-state funders backed a victory for charter-school supporters.
But unlike in IPS, Washington Township isn’t facing a pivotal election — and Hall’s opponent had raised barely any money until this month. That has raised eyebrows in the area, where locals wonder why LEE, even given Hall’s connection to TFA, would spend so heavily on the race.
A native of California, Hall moved to Indianapolis three years ago for a teaching position through TFA, a national not-for-profit that recruits new teachers for school districts with high-needs students.
He landed a position at KIPP Indy Unite Elementary, where he now works with students with special needs. Hall, who doesn’t have children, says his background as an educator will offer valuable insight to the board, and despite being new to the community, he is dedicated to improving the schools.
Hall said LEE’s support for his candidacy does not mean the school reform fight is coming to Washington Township, and he is not in the race to push sweeping changes.
“My intent is to do what’s best for kids,” Hall said. “Does that mean do we need to crash the system and redo it from scratch? No, not necessarily. I think Washington Township is in a good spot. I think that with tweaks it can continue to be better.”
Since LEE launched in 2007, it has trained educators to get involved in local politics and given candidates access to a deep well of cash from national school reform advocates. The Indiana branch of LEE, which like others is heavily funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has contributed to other TFA alumni running for office in Indianapolis.
But Hall is the only candidate the Indiana group has donated to this year, and its donations to his campaign dwarf its contributions to candidates in past elections. LaNier Echols, for example, got $7,500 from LEE when she ran for a seat on the IPS board in 2014.
“Deitric Hall is a shining example of understanding his community and the schools that serve it,” LEE spokesman Eric Guckian said in a statement. “His vision for Washington Township will make him an invaluable member of the school board, if elected.”
Three of the five school board seats are up for election in Washington Township. Hall is facing off against one opponent, John Fencl, for an at-large seat representing the entire district.
Fencl has deep roots in the community: He is a parent of two middle schoolers in Washington Township where he also grew up and went to school. Fencl, an accountant, has volunteered as a math tutor and coach in the district. He said his work mentoring middle school boys has given him particular insight into the schools.
“I’m focused on the district, involved in the district,” he said. “I understand what Washington Township schools are about.”
When Fencl filed a fundraising report with the county earlier this month, he had raised just $750, which he said was because he wasn’t sure how competitive the race would be. But when he saw how much money Hall had raised, he shifted into high gear. In just a couple of weeks, Fencl boosted his fundraising to close to $7,500, he said. About $5,000 of that came from a single donor, Washington Township attorney Charles Rubright.
Since it became clear how much money Hall raised, other community members, including parents and even high school students, have become active in the race. They say they are motivated by concern over the role out-of-state funding is playing in Hall’s campaign.
Kristina Frey is a Washington Township parent who leads the Parent Council Network, a longstanding political group that endorsed Fencl. When she learned that Hall had joined the race, she set up a meeting to hear about his plan for the district and she came away uncertain why he was even running, she said.
“My suspicion is that folks in the education reform movement are looking at how they can potentially expand outside of IPS boundaries,” Frey said. “I would not be surprised to see them come back again with more money and try to gain a majority as they did in IPS.”
Washington Township attracts lots of families looking for good schools, and it recently rolled out the popular International Baccalaureate curriculum districtwide. But more than half its students are poor enough to receive meal assistance, and it is increasingly diverse, with a growing population of Hispanic children.
As a result, the district is facing some of the same challenges of larger urban districts, such as figuring out how to reduce suspensions. But parents say there hasn’t been much conflict over traditional school reform policies: The district doesn’t have teachers from TFA and there is only one charter school within its boundaries. The most pressing issue facing Washington Township seems to be school funding.
“I think it’s a pretty harmonious situation,” said Shelley Clark, a parent and member of the Parent Council Network whose children went to school with Fencl’s.
The relative calm of district politics is one reason why parents such as Clark are so suspicious of Hall’s involvement in the race and the unexpectedly large influx of cash he is receiving from national advocates.
“I feel like I sound like a conspiracy theorist,” Clark said. “But I’d be curious to know why is this important? Why is this happening now? Why is it worth $31,000 to some institution that isn’t even from here?”
Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.