Vying for a seat on the Indianapolis Public Schools board of commissioners is usually a heated battle.
In 2012, 10 people raised more than $200,000 combined to win one of four open seats on the IPS board of commissioners — elected officials who have the power to vote on the district’s budget, set strategic goals, and oversee other priorities.
In 2018, eight other candidates collected more than $192,000 competing for three seats. And in 2020, nearly $600,000 was raised by 10 candidates seeking four open seats.
But this year, interest in leading IPS has dropped to the lowest level in at least the past decade — just four candidates have filed for three open seats. Only the race for District 3, which encompasses parts of midtown Indianapolis, is contested. The three incumbents are not seeking reelection.
Why are fewer people stepping up to govern the state's largest school district? The answers people give range from polarizing politics to the daunting task of raising big campaign donations.
The waning interest comes right as the district embarks on its Rebuilding Stronger plan, a major overhaul to address declining enrollment and an impending fiscal cliff. The superintendent is proposing the closure of seven schools and the creation of standalone middle schools, among other things.
IPS board members, including the three who chose not to seek reelection, are expected to vote on the plan in November.
“The district’s going through some huge changes right now, and it’s interesting to me that the people who are on the board now are going to vote on those changes and then go off,” said Jim Grim, Director of University and Community School Partnerships at IUPUI who lost a bid for school board in 2016. “So the people who come on are going to have to deal with those changes.”
Potential candidates walking away?
But the decline also comes after years of school board races in which certain candidates received tens of thousands of dollars from political action committees. These PACs and other out-of-state donors have strong ties to the charter school movement, and support education policies that traditional public school advocates say are harming IPS.
That money has ultimately deterred people from running a race they won’t win, argued Jim Scheurich of the IPS Community Coalition, a nonprofit group consistently critical of the district's partnerships with charter schools.
“To me, they basically ended local democracy,” Scheurich said of PACs associated with local nonprofits Stand for Children Indiana and RISE Indy. “The amount of money they have is so huge.”
Both organizations say their campaign support and community engagement efforts push education issues to the forefront of what's at stake on the ballot.
Since 2012, large-scale campaign donations have also come from groups like the Indy Chamber’s Business Advocacy Committee and the Metropolitan Indianapolis Board of Realtors PAC.
The PAC of the state’s largest teachers union has also boosted candidates with more cash than some opponents.
The race to raise big donations may certainly be deterring potential candidates from running, said Rebecca Jacobsen, co-author of the book “Outside Money in School Board Elections,” which studied the influence of campaign contributions in Indianapolis and four other cities.
“Some of the candidates that we spoke to when we were doing this research actually joked that it would have been cheaper, would have required less money, to run for state legislature,” said Jacobsen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University. “Because the elections were getting so focused on [the fact that] you really had to raise quite a bit of money in order to be a viable candidate.”
But campaign finance may not be the only reason for the low turnout.
School board officials in Indiana and across the country have faced increased scrutiny, anger, and even threats over a range of issues, from COVID-19 protocols to curriculum during the pandemic. And the highly charged atmosphere has made some question if they would remain on their board.
Even though IPS has largely escaped such problems, that overall political environment might still be depressing interest from possible candidates.
“The current climate and the rhetoric that we’ve seen, and the coverage that we’ve seen of school boards, I think is probably making many people pause when they think, ‘Well, A) Do I really want to do this?’ and then ‘B) Do I have the means to do this?’” Jacobsen said. “And the combination of those two might mean a lot more people are saying no.”
The growing cost of school board races
Elizabeth Gore remembers running her first election for Indianapolis school board in 2008 with just a few hundred dollars.
But things started to change in 2012, the year money from PACs and outside donors began to flow to Indiana.
Stand for Children Indiana, a branch of the national K-12 parent advocacy nonprofit based in Oregon, spent an unknown amount from its national parent. Its status as a social welfare organization allowed the group to avoid disclosing detailed expenses on individual candidates.
But some of Stand’s spending was visible in the form of things like glossy mailers targeting voters. Stand now discloses its spending through a political action committee.
In the coming years, Gore won and lost against candidates financed with direct and in-kind support from Stand and later RISE Indy. RISE, a nonprofit formed in 2019, describes itself as drawing attention to issues around student achievement and equity in local schools. Some of its board members are high-profile charter school advocates.
Gore pulled off a major upset in 2016 against one such candidate, Sam Odle, who raised $40,011 in comparison to her roughly $1,000.
But in 2020, multiple PACs and individual donors flexed their financial muscle and provided a combined $266,052 for Kenneth Allen, Gore’s opponent. Hoosiers for Great Public Schools, a Carmel-based committee that supports “educational opportunities for all students,” donated $80,000 of that amount to Allen.
The PAC is run by Bart Peterson —a RISE board member, president of educational non-profit Christel House International and a former Indianapolis mayor. In 2020 it was funded by two donors outside Indiana: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings contributed $700,000 and Texas philanthropist John Arnold gave $200,000.
During the election, Stand for Children Indiana and RISE Indy also contributed more than a combined $100,000 to Allen in direct cash and in-kind support, like telemarketing.
Yet Gore, who raised around $22,000, lost by just two percentage points.
“There are a lot of things that go on that you need money for,” Gore said of running a campaign. “And if people have more than you, it might make a difference.”
Within IPS circles, Gore’s story is used both to support and refute the argument that money can buy school board races.
And organizations like Stand and RISE aren’t the only entities that have shelled out big dollars in recent years. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education, or I-PACE, the political arm of the Indiana State Teachers Association, has financed candidates to serve as formidable opponents to the reform movement.
State campaign finance filings show that in 2018, I-PACE gave a total of $68,400 for three races, including $28,500 to Taria Slack to unseat Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, who was backed by the Indy Chamber and raised a total of $40,724. Slack won.
Susan Collins also defeated a candidate with more money. I-PACE donated $15,000 to her campaign.
In 2020, I-PACE supported Gore with $18,200 and Brandon Randall with $11,000 in their failed races.
But is money deterring people from running at all?
"It takes a lot of time if you are going to run a campaign properly," said Deborah Heath, a former member of I-PACE, which makes decisions on endorsements and contributions using recommendations of local association members like the Indianapolis Education Association. "And there's the potential overhaul of the district. If that passes the board, the incoming people in January that are going to be part of the implementation. If you read through the district website -- that is a really huge overhaul."
So to Heath, a 24-year IPS teacher and IEA secretary, there are a multiple reasons, including cost.
“I don't think any amount of money raised through Stand’s committee will prevent them from running,” said Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana.
Ohlemiller said he hasn’t seen such low candidate filings during his 10 years in this position. But he disputes the notion that specific factors, like more finances, contribute to someone’s ability to win an election.
“It’s hard to say what factors contribute to a candidate winning or losing,” Ohlemiller said. “In fact, there's really no data that kind of show what those factors are.”
But over the past decade, 14 out of the 17 candidates who raised more money than their opponent ended up winning their race.
Still, these advocacy groups point to positives they’ve had on the political school board landscape — Ohlemiller believes the increase in parent advocates leading text and phone banks has helped increase the number of voters.
“What is a largely sort of down ballot, low-information race for school board has certainly, I think, garnered more attention” over the last several years, Ohlemiller said.
Jasmin Shaheed-Young, founder of RISE Indy, also credits her organization with helping improve voter turnout in the 2020 election.
Successful candidates have strong community ties and have “a history of being focused on issues around educational equity,” Shaheed-Young said.
She also noted that three of the candidates this year for each seat — Hope Hampton, Angelia Moore, and Nicole Carey — are Black women, notably higher than in previous school board races.
“That to me is the evidence of power shifting to community members,” she said. “So regardless of what's being spent in elections, the fact that we have three Black women that have been steeped in community and prioritizing students is, is an incredible victory for IPS and our city.”
A losing battle?
Scheurich, however, feels differently about the state of the school board.
The leader of the IPS Community Coalition, a grassroots group of parents and other organizers, believes it’s not worth the effort to run.
Unless candidates have major financial backing from groups like Rise and Stand, Scheurich said, they are entering a losing battle: “To me, it makes no sense to run. You can’t run. You have no legitimate chance to win.”
His coalition has thrown support behind various candidates in the past, people who would more likely oppose or at least question the charter school growth.
This year, Scheruich said, the group tried and failed to recruit candidates.
“People are not dumb. They see the amount of money that’s being spent,” he said. “And even if they're considering it, you’ve got to tell them, ‘Hundreds of thousands of dollars will be spent against you. They’ll have as much money as they need. They’ll have more than they need. And the best you’ll get is union support for maybe $20,000.’”
Money in school board elections has played both a positive and negative role, Jacobsen said.
More money brought increased attention to elections, enabling candidates to run more professionalized campaigns that potentially made them more informed of the issues.
But education reform money also shifted policy conversation towards nationalized issues — such as teacher unionization and charter schools — leaving little attention to localized issues uniquely important to the community, Jacobsen said.
“It does narrow, then, the agenda of what issues are being talked about,” she said. “And I think that for many people it becomes out of reach, when you are thinking you have to raise $80,000 to run for a school board when there often is no pay or very little pay.”
A quiet election year
This year, at least, IPS school board races will likely be sleepy.
Stand for Children Indiana and RISE Indy endorsed the two unopposed candidates, at-large candidate Angelia Moore and District 5 candidate Nicole Carey.
Both groups also endorsed Hope Hampton for District 3 over Kristen Elizabeth Phair.
Whether that endorsement will come with funding — and if so, how much — is unclear. Pre-election campaign finance reports are due Oct. 21.
Hampton, the mother of IPS students, graduated from RISE Indy’s Circle City Leaders program, which has produced two other school board members elected in 2020, Will Pritchard and Kenneth Allen.
Ultimately, many education advocates said the disputes over politics and campaign strategies aren’t what matter most.
“Students that have been failed by the system really don't care about what's going on with IPS school board elections,” Shaheed-Young said. “But [what] they do care about is ensuring that they have folks that are on that board that are in urgency in ensuring that we make changes for a system that has been broken.”
Early voting at the City-County Building opens on Oct. 12. The November midterm election is Nov. 8.
Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elizabeth Gabriel covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for WFYI. Contact Elizabeth at email@example.com
Cam Rodriguez is a data and graphics reporter on Chalkbeat's data visuals team. Get in touch with Cam at firstname.lastname@example.org.