Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is a finalist to lead the Los Angeles school district, the nation’s second largest, according to IPS Board President Michael O’Connor.
Former investment banker Austin Beutner is apparently the frontrunner for the job, according to the Los Angeles Times, which first reported the news. Ferebee is another finalist along with interim Los Angeles Superintendent Vivian Ekchian and former Baltimore Superintendent Andres Alonso. Ferebee didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ferebee has made a name for himself nationally by overhauling IPS, converting low-performing schools into “innovation schools” run by outside charter operators but still under the district’s umbrella.
The selection of Ferebee might signal that Los Angeles is further embracing what some call the “portfolio model”—the idea that all schools should be given freedom to operate as they see fit, but held accountable for their results, largely through test scores.
Under Ferebee’s tenure, IPS has embraced key tenets of the approach, including a common enrollment system for district and charter schools and an initiative that turns over district schools to nonprofit or outside charter operators who handle daily management. Some Los Angeles school board members have suggested the district move in a similar direction.
O’Connor said that Ferebee’s selection as a finalist in such a large district is “a sign that both he and the school system are doing things that people are paying attention to and in many places want to emulate.”
He said that Ferebee told him that he was approached by a hiring firm that asked him to be in the pool of candidates for the Los Angeles position. O’Connor noted that Ferebee has been with the district for nearly five years, longer than is typical for urban superintendents.
“We’ve been lucky,” O’Connor said.
The average urban tenure of superintendents leading urban school districts is just over three years, according to a 2014 survey conducted by the Council of Great City Schools.
Even if Ferebee does not leave Indianapolis, the public confirmation that he is interested in other jobs could handicap his ability to win community support at pivotal time for IPS. The district will close nearly half of its high schools at the end of this year. And leaders are in the midst of a rocky campaign to seek more funding from taxpayers—an appeal that was first scaled back and then delayed. The district is now working with the Indy Chamber to craft a new proposal that leaders expect to put on the ballot in November.
Chamber chief policy officer Mark Fisher said that the campaign cannot hinge on a individual. Ferebee’s selection as a finalist in Los Angeles reinforces the need for a strong school board, which oversees the district and would hire his replacement if he leaves.
“Nobody is irreplaceable,” Fisher said. “He is an exceptional leader. But I have full faith in the board.”
If Ferebee took the helm of the Los Angeles school system, it would be a dramatic move. The Los Angeles district has more than 640,000 students, about 20 times as many students as IPS.
Ferebee came to Indianapolis in 2013. He previously served as chief of staff for the superintendent of Durham, North Carolina. Until coming to Indianapolis, he spent most of his career in traditional public school systems in that state.
Since Ferebee took the helm at the city’s largest school district, IPS has significantly improved its graduation rate to 83 percent, up from about 68 percent. The district has not seen improvement in scores on ISTEP, the state standardized exams.
Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.
Read more about Ferebee here: The basics of Lewis Ferebee: An IPS superintendent pushing hard for change.