Inflammatory protester-turned-candidate challenges veteran member for seat on IPS board

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
George Washington High School.

(This is the third in a series of stories profiling the 10 candidates for Indianapolis Public Schools Board and their positions on some of the most substantive issues facing the district. In the coming weeks Chalkbeat will profile the candidates for each of the seats up for election. Today we cover District Four, where incumbent Diane Arnold is facing a challenge from Larry Vaughn to represent the southwest side of the district, which includes George Washington High School.

For more coverage of the campaign for school board and the state political candidates check out the Chalkbeat election series.)

In the contentious battle for control of Indianapolis Public Schools Board this election, the race for one seat has taken an especially unusual shape.

On one side is Diane Arnold, a longtime board member who has run the Hawthorne Community Center for decades and has deep roots on the west side.

Larry Vaughn is escorted out of an Indianapolis Pubic School Board meeting on Oct. 27, 2015, after he called the board members "child molesters." Vaughn is a candidate for IPS school board.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Larry Vaughn is escorted out of an Indianapolis Pubic School Board meeting on Oct. 27, 2015, after he called the board members “child molesters.” Vaughn is a candidate for IPS school board.

On the other is Larry Vaughn, a gadfly who has made multiple longshot bids for public office, and who has delivered public tirades accusing board members of perpetuating slavery and child molestation.

More conventional critics of the school board’s direction are so eager to unseat current members that they have looked past Vaughn’s incendiary language to support his candidacy. Concerned Clergy and a new group called OurIPS endorsed him last month.

Chrissy Smith, a member of OurIPS with two children at Sidener Academy, voted for Arnold in the past two board elections. But she said she is now so disappointed by Arnold’s support for innovation schools and other new policies that she is putting aside some reservations to vote for Vaughn, whom she described as extremely knowledgable.

“The only other person that’s running in my district is Larry Vaughn,” she said. “Just because someone may have some different ways of presenting things or has been controversial doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to adequately perform the duties of the office.”

Diane Arnold
PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Diane Arnold

Diane Arnold runs the Hawthorne Center, which serves children and families in her near west side neighborhood, and she is the longest-serving member of the board. She won her spot in 2004, and has remained as the board went through a transformation. She is now part of a majority that largely favors pro-reform policies and cooperation with charter schools.

Arnold grew up on the west side and graduated from George Washington High School, where she met her husband. Her two children went to IPS elementary schools but left for high school, attending Speedway and Cardinal Ritter high schools. At the time, George Washington and many of the west side IPS schools were closed, leaving a painful fissure in the community, Arnold said.

At the Hawthorne Center, Arnold works with many children in the community as well as parents who are struggling to take care of their families. When children disconnect from education, they often return to the center years later for help making ends meet, she said.

“I do believe that education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty,” she said. “I see children who come from environments fraught with so many barriers, poverty and domestic violence, and to see them achieve academically — I’ve had children who have come from horrific situations and they’ve gone on to be valedictorians.”

Arnold said she is proud of the work the board has done recently, including giving raises to teachers, significantly reducing the number of schools that the state considers failing, and trying new approaches to fixing failing schools.

“We’re making progress,” she said.

Larry Vaughn
PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Larry Vaughn

Larry Vaughn, an artist and frequent protester, is Arnold’s only challenger to represent the south west side. Although Vaughn has tempered his speech slightly during the campaign, his speeches at public meetings are incendiary and can be hard to follow. He has repeatedly accused the sitting board members of plotting to send busloads of children to charter schools and running a segregated district.

Vaughn has been ejected from school board meetings multiple times by security during his polemics, prompting him to file a civil suit against the board in March.

Vaughn, who lives on a small farm on the outskirts of the district, makes his living as an artist, primarily doing restoration work. He is trained as a glass beveler, and he also does graphic design, paints and sculpts. This is his second time running for the board, and he also ran for mayor last year, when he received just 11 percent of the vote in a two-candidate Democratic primary.

Raised in Indianapolis, Vaughn graduated from Manual High School. He has an adult daughter, who attended Catholic school and high school in Perry Township, schools that were chosen by her mother, with whom she lived.

Vaughn credits IPS with teaching him to read as a child, which he said has stabilized his life and allowed him to pursue his curiosity about history and government. Vaughn, who did not attend college, said that voters should choose him because he is a self-educated person who has studied the law for years.

“One of the most important things that a (board member) can do is to sue and be sued on behalf of the district,” he said. “I’m ready to immediately, right after I get elected, to march a lawsuit right over to the federal court.”

On innovation schools:

Arnold is a strong proponent of innovation schools — which are part of the district but managed by outside charter networks or nonprofits — as strategy for improving the most chronically failing schools in the district and ultimately preventing the state from taking over those schools. But she said that the district also has a responsibility to hold outside partners accountable.

“We have children who have spent nine years of their formal education in a failing school, and I will tell you during those nine years … we have tried everything to turn those schools around,” she said. “I’m willing to try other things. I’m hopeful that we will do better for our children.”

Vaughn is completely opposed to innovation schools. If elected, Vaughn said he would immediately go to federal court to pursue an injunction to stop new schools and close existing ones.

“They are not a part of the district,” he said. “These schools are private corporations. … Education should not be a private endeavor because you cannot find a corporation that can afford it.”

On Superintendent Lewis Ferebee:

Arnold was president of the IPS board when the district hired Ferebee, and although she has some concerns about the administration’s communication with the community, she said the district is improving under his leadership.

Ferebee’s strengths include his work recruiting talented principals and his ability to work with the state legislature and people outside of the district, Arnold said.

“He has opened the doors. People always wanted to help IPS, but those doors were not always opened,” she said. “Our children suffered because of that.”

Vaughn is deeply critical of Ferebee, but rather than work with the board to end his contract, Vaughn argued that Ferebee should be prosecuted for “conducting a dual system.”

“Superintendent Ferebee is nothing but a bad actor,” he said. “He does not have an agenda. The people that are backing him have the agenda. They’ve put him up there to do just what he’s doing — to try to defund and bring down the district, and he’s doing it transparently.”

On closing schools with low enrollment:

Arnold has personal experience with the high toll closing schools can take on students and families, since many of the schools on the near west side were closed. She is extremely reluctant to close any schools, and instead thinks the district should focus on finding organizations to share space in buildings.

“Nothing cuts the heart out of a community like closing all of your schools,” she said. “I would be hard pressed to vote to close any school unless every avenue had been explored on how to make those schools stay open and work.”

Vaughn said the district could solve its enrollment problems by welcoming students at charter schools back to the district.

“It would be a good thing if they would stop bringing the busloads of kids down to IPS, steering them into (charter) schools,” he said. “I would put the welcome mat out.”

On supporting teachers:

Arnold said the district needs to pay teachers more and offer other benefits, from health insurance to non-monetary perks such as priority admission to popular schools. But she said the most important piece of improving working conditions is hiring good principals.

“I think the key to helping teachers is getting good building leaders,” she said. “If you have a good principal, good teachers want to work for them. The best thing we can do is putting good building leaders in that will support their teachers.”

Vaughn said teachers need a strong union to protect their rights, so teachers can focus on running their classrooms. He also said teachers should be paid as much as their colleagues in wealthier districts.

“It’s a profession, and it should be a highly honored profession,” he said. “I will fight for pay equity for every teacher that teaches in IPS, the administrators and the janitors and everybody that does the administration of this district. It’s going to be on par with Carmel Clay.”

Indiana 2016 Election

The biggest donation in the IPS school board race came from an unexpected source

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In the battle for control of the Indianapolis Public School board, the largest single campaign contribution came from an unexpected source: the teachers’ union. But the donation didn’t help the union-backed candidate.

In recent years, IPS board races have been dominated by pro-school reform candidates who have attracted large contributions from deep-pocketed donors. But in other elections — at other times, in other places — it’s common for teachers’ unions to spend big.

That’s what happened this time in Indianapolis.

Critics of the current administration made their first organized bid to unseat incumbent board members in 2016 when they formed the group OurIPS. The group didn’t donate to candidates, but the district-wide candidate the group supported, Jim Grim, did win a $15,000 contribution from the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Despite that cash, all four candidates backed by OurIPS lost on Election Day.

The contribution to Grim’s campaign was revealed in final campaign finance reports due to the Marion County Election Board last week. The disclosures detail fundraising and spending for each school board campaign, but they don’t include groups such as Stand for Children, which sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses but is not required to disclose all of its political activity.

Although the union donation was easily the largest single contribution any candidate received, other candidates did raise more in total. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce spent more overall but gave to four candidates.

Here are the totals for each race:


Grim raised $20,930 during the election. His opponents were incumbent Sam Odle, who raised $31,893, and challenger Elizabeth Gore, who won a surprise victory in the raise. Gore has not filed a finance report, but she told Chalkbeat after the election that she raised about $1,200.

District 1

Incumbent Michael O’Connor vastly out fundraised his opponent in the race, raising $23,543, according to his disclosure. Challenger Christine Prince raised $100.

District 2

Venita Moore, a newcomer who won the seat with support from Stand for Children, raised $25,712. Ramon Batts, who had the support of OurIPS, raised $3,550. Nanci Lacy did not file a report.

District 4

Long-time board member Diane Arnold raised $16,696. Challenger Larry Vaughn did not file a report.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect a new fundraising total for Michael O’Connor, who submitted a corrected disclosure.

day one

Three new members join IPS board, Sullivan elected president

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Five IPS board members were sworn in. Left to right: Elizabeth Gore, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, Diane Arnold, Venita Moore and Michael O'Connor.

Mary Ann Sullivan will lead the Indianapolis Public School board for the second year in a row, bringing a dose of consistency to a board that begins the term with three new members.

At the first meeting of 2017, the seven-member board swore in three new members, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, Elizabeth Gore and Venita Moore, and two returning members, Diane Arnold and Michael O’Connor. In a clear sign of the growing collaboration between the city — which oversees dozens of charter schools — and the school district, the members were sworn in by Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett.

“The decisions you make here profoundly impact not only the students that attend IPS today but … the future of this great city,” Hogsett said. “As our city strives to always better our schools, your individual rules in that effort are critically important to the long-term health and well-being of this city.”

The new board unanimously elected Sullivan as president, O’Connor as vice-president and Gore as secretary. Sullivan, who was also president in 2016, joined the board two years ago as part of a wave of members who support dramatic changes aimed at improving the lowest performing schools.

“I will do my best to maintain the progress that we are making on so many fronts and to keep our sense of urgency,” Sullivan said. “I am very, very confident that this board is ready to provide the leadership needed to transform lives.”

Two of the new board members won spots following a bruising election fight for control of the board between advocates for radically overhauling the district by embracing policies such as partnerships with charter schools and critics who favor more traditional management. The third new member was chosen by the board to replace LaNier Echols, who resigned following the election.

The three newest board members bring a wide range of experience to the board. Here’s a little about each:

Dorene Rodriguez Hoops is the most mysterious new board member because she was chosen by the board to fill a vacancy, rather than going through the election process. She represents District 5, which covers the northwest section of IPS. Although her positions on many of the biggest issues facing the district are not clearly fleshed out, her personal background gives her a unique perspective on many of the issues facing IPS families. A first-generation Mexican American and fluent Spanish speaker, Hoops is the only Latina board member. She also is the only current parent on the board, with a son enrolled at Center for Inquiry School 27. Her son has special needs, and she said her work advocating for his education renewed her commitment to ensuring educational access.

Elizabeth Gore defeated Sam Odle for an at-large seat representing the entire district. Although she is newly elected, this is not her first time on the board. Gore served a term on the board before losing a reelection bid in 2012, when a wave of critics of former-superintendent Eugene White captured control. In her bid for reelection, Gore was not backed by school-reform supporters or the organized opposition, and her victory was something of a surprise. She is a graduate of Crispus Attucks High School and her three children graduated from Arsenal Technical High School, where she led the parent teacher association.

Venita Moore won a three-way race to replace former board member Gayle Cosby, a frequent critic of the administration. She represents District 2, which covers the northeast section of IPS. A business consultant with experience running a state agency, Moore was endorsed by pro-reform groups including Stand for Children. But she does not have a significant record of political work on education, so her approach to the school board is still something of an unknown. Moore is also an IPS graduate, and her daughter graduated from Crispus Attucks High School.