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We’re now less than 50 days until Election Day, November 3rd – and before you can say “virtual learning pods,” early voting will be underway (starting October 6th, the day after Indiana’s voter registration deadline). A couple of weeks ago, we announced our Business Advocacy Committee endorsement of Governor Eric Holcomb for re-election, along with a bipartisan slate of state legislative candidates.

Today we’re looking at another set of critically-important races that deserve a separate share of the spotlight: The Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) Board of Commissioners, where we can say without much hyperbole that our future is on the ballot.

The Indy Chamber enjoys a unique relationship with Indiana’s largest school district (more on that in a minute), recognizing that a successful IPS today shapes the longer-term success of our city in a talent-driven economy. IPS has made major strides in student achievement over the last decade, as measured by test scores, graduation rates, and new programs focused on career and college engagement.

To build on this progress, the Chamber supports incumbents Venita Moore (District 2) and Diane Arnold (District 4), Will Pritchard to fill the District 1 seat being vacated by Michael O’Connor, and challenger Kenneth Allen to win the At-Large position on the school board.

Started from the bottom:
It wasn’t that long ago that IPS graduated less than half its students, attempting to meet the needs of a diverse student population with a “one size fits all” traditional district model.

New leadership on the board, supporting Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and now Aleesia Johnson, drove a new vision for IPS: Offering differentiated learning opportunities to meet the unique needs of students across the city, embracing partnerships with charter schools and emphasizing career-focused magnet programs.

These reforms recognized that becoming a district of great schools was the best way to ultimately become a great school district. Gains in student achievement followed, and have continued.

Now we’re here:
But progress was always fragile. Even though enrollment stabilized as performance improved, IPS was still operating too many half-empty schools, facing a tough budget climate and high teacher turnover as salaries lagged. While the Indy Chamber had partnered with IPS in many ways through the years, we needed to step up and do more.

We supported IPS through the tough decisions to restructure local high schools, and urged the district to rethink its 2018 plans for operating and capital referenda to prioritize teacher compensation (to enhance recruitment and reduce classroom turnover) within a more reasonable request for taxpayers.

To match words with action, we led a group of private sector leaders and a professional consulting team to evaluate the district’s budget and recommend operational efficiencies to shift new resources solely to teachers and academic essentials. This assessment ultimately yielded hundreds of millions of dollars in potential cost saving strategies; seizing on just a few of these have already paid off in 5% average raises for teachers across the district (cutting turnover more than 40% in 2019).

But all this work won’t filter into continued classroom success without a school board committed to keeping the innovative structure that’s working for IPS.

That’s why the IPS elections are so important, and why we enthusiastically support Venita Moore (District 2) and Diane Arnold (District 4), Will Pritchard (District 1) and Kenneth Allen (At-Large).

Grading on the Curve:
COVID has raised the stakes even higher for strong leadership and sound fiscal management. By now, you’ve probably heard that IPS is looking towards a phased return to in-person learning in October, informed by a data-driven strategy led by Superintendent Johnson and the board.

The pandemic has caused widespread disruptions to IPS and all districts across the state. The shift to remote learning has created massive and unanticipated challenges in technology, logistics, student services and parental/guardian engagement. The fiscal effects of COVID on local property taxes and state revenues (and potentially state aid to schools) are also likely to “move the goalposts” for the IPS budget, making it even more challenging to drive resources to teachers and principals.

In short, it’s even more important now that we have school board members who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work – not just lob criticisms without offering solutions.

Speaking of doing the work: We’re pleased with the initial progress made by IPS on the operational assessment we announced two years ago, but remain committed to supporting the district through the more complex and difficult choices that lie ahead…choices that are needed to keep IPS an employer of choice for great teachers and principals, with great learning options for students and their families.

And you aren’t off the hook, either – there’s plenty of work to go around. Stay tuned for our next update as we outline ways you and your team can get involved in this election!

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