Mary Ann Sullivan: School board should be more welcoming to people and ideas

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Mary Ann Sullivan, who was elected to the Indianapolis Public School Board in 2014, is expected to be named board president Friday.

(Chalkbeat talked with the 10 candidates running for a spot on the Indianapolis Public Schools board about their backgrounds, educational philosophies, and why and how they want to influence the school district if they are elected Nov. 4. To compare their positions against other candidates, visit our interactive election tracker.)

Former state Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan often made fellow Democrats squirm in her time at the Statehouse. It wasn’t unusual for her to be the lone vote on her side of the aisle in favor of ideas like charter schools, tougher teacher evaluation or limits on teacher union bargaining.

At a time when the Indianapolis Public School Board has become more open to ideas like partnering with charter schools, revamping teacher pay and giving principals more control over schools, Sullivan argues she would be the best fit among five candidates in her race.

Sullivan is running for an at-large seat against incumbent Annie Roof and three other challengers: Light of the World Christian Church Pastor David Hampton, Butler University instructor Josh Owens, and IPS athletic coach Ramon Batts.

Here is what Sullivan told Chalkbeat about her background, goals for the district and thoughts on education issues:

(Meet the candidates: Attend Chalkbeat and WFYI’s Oct. 23 education conversation event at the Indianapolis Public Library)

She thinks “school autonomy” is more than just a buzzword.

“I want (principals’) decisions to be nimble, flexible and based in the actual population of kids that are there at a school,” Sullivan said. “Giving the schools that ability is a priority with me. I know there’s administrators out there who have things they want to do that, for whatever reason, they feel they don’t have the ability to do.”

Her daughter is an IPS teacher, and that has made her deeply concerned about issues like the district’s five-year pay freeze.

“I appreciate the difficulty of finding money in the budget,” Sullivan said. “Everyone wants to make more money, but if you’re already making a decent amount, it’s less worrisome. You have these young, talented teachers that are kind of stuck. I would be interested in trying to find (a system) that recognized the reality of the situation and how it plays out in people’s lives.”

Sullivan said endorsements from Stand for Children and the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce bolster her credentials.

“I was very pleased to get both of those endorsements,” Sullivan said. “I have a long history with the Chamber. They seem to be really engaged in a lot more city building. Hopefully it has the outcome of creating better economic development for the city. I really wanted to be endorsed by Stand.”

She wants to change the way the IPS school board operates.

“I think they need to meet way, way less,” Sullivan said. “I would like for the board to look at the policy manual and see whether it needs to be thrown in the trash or rewritten. I’m sensitive to the welcoming-ness of public entities. The meetings are overly formal and a little standoff-ish. It seems like a minor thing, but I’d like to change the feel and the atmosphere on that board so that it’s more of a real working together board.”

She’s allied with candidates Kelly Bentley and LaNier Echols in the other board races — all three were endorsed by Stand for Children and the Chamber. She hopes they can be elected to work together. Otherwise she will draw on her statehouse experience to make compromises. 

“If I get elected with the team that’s been endorsed, I know we’ll share the same underlying principles,” Sullivan said. “If it’s a more mixed dynamic, then I’ll just pull on all my statehouse experience. I certainly dealt with a lot of people where we disagreed on maybe 80 percent or 90 percent of the issues. You can put your energy on the 20 or 10 percent you agree on.”

Read more: Six critical questions the IPS school board race will answer

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.