IPS board taps deputy superintendent to serve as interim leader

Deputy superintendent Aleesia Johnson has been chosen to lead Indianapolis Public Schools as interim superintendent while the board searches for a permanent replacement for Lewis Ferebee, who is leaving the district to take the top job at Washington, D.C., schools.

Johnson will be the first African-American woman to lead the district, according to board member Kelly Bentley, but not the first minority woman. Esperanza Zendejas, who led the district from 1995 to 1998, is a native of Mexico.

The board unanimously voted to appoint Johnson as the interim superintendent in a meeting Friday. Johnson started working for the district in 2015 as the innovation officer, leading the new strategy to partner with outside not-for-profit or charter operators to run schools under the district’s umbrella. She formerly led KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory and worked for Teach for America.

School board members said Johnson’s appointment represents a continuation of the work under Ferebee’s leadership. Ferebee, who joined the district in 2013, was selected Monday to be the next chancellor of D.C.’s public school system.

“I think the work and the path that we’re on is the right path,” Johnson said, “but I think obviously I am a different leader.”

She could also potentially be an internal candidate to permanently replace Ferebee, though she said Friday that she is waiting to hear more about what the board is looking for in its search process. The board has not yet decided on details, holding off until early January when three newly elected board members will be sworn in.

“I know that Ms. Johnson will be able to continue the direction and progress begun by Ferebee and this board without missing a beat,” said school board member Mary Ann Sullivan. “IPS has many transformative initiatives underway, and it’s absolutely critical that the person managing the district is able to not only maintain momentum but sees new opportunities consistent with the best hopes and dreams of our students.”

Ferebee said he expects to address raises for teachers this month, before his last day in Indianapolis on Jan. 4. He is slated to start in D.C. by Jan. 31.

His successor will have to deal with the district’s tough financial situation. Despite winning a $272 million influx of tax dollars through referendums this year, the district still faces the potential of budget cuts and school closures.

The next district superintendent also will have to navigate new dynamics on the school board. Of the three new members joining the board in January, two won seats by voicing opposition to Ferebee’s moves to close high schools and partner with charter or outside operators to run innovation schools.

Board president Michael O’Connor said the mandate for a new leader will be: “How do we continue with the progress that we’ve made?”

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

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