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Who should replace Lewis Ferebee as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools?

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee at Indianapolis Public Schools meeting at Glendale Library about closing three high schools in 2017. Ferebee said Monday he'd be leaving IPS for D.C. at the end of January.

Indianapolis’ education community is already mulling what kind of leader should replace Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who announced Monday that he’s leaving to head D.C. public schools.

With the 31,000-student school district in a state of flux, school board members and advocates say there is no time to waste. The district closed high schools last year. Two candidates opposed to innovation schools — the group of charter and charter-like schools managed by outside operators that was one of Ferebee’s main achievements — were recently elected to the school board. And despite the passage of a referendum to send more taxpayer money to schools, more large cuts are looming.

“Certainly it’s an important, critical time for IPS — the work that we’re doing with them, how they approach teacher pay and principal pay,” Mark Fisher, who leads policy for the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce said. “It’s going to be a critical hire for Dr. Ferebee’s replacement, and especially with several new board members joining the board, they’ll be drinking from the firehose.”

First, Indianapolis Public Schools board members will have to decide if they want to hire from within the community or pursue a national search for their new leader. Board president Michael O’Connor said the school board would meet soon in executive session to hammer out next steps.

“We’ll gather as a board and make some immediate decisions on a transition period,” O’Connor said. “This is a particularly touchy time period because you’ve got a board transition occurring, so we’ll make sure to be very inclusive.”

Mary Ann Sullivan, an outgoing board member, said her advice to her colleagues would be to keep it local. Don’t make the process to find Ferebee’s replacement lengthier than it needs to be, she said, noting that there are definitely people in Indianapolis who are ready to step in to take over, though she declined to provide names.

“Things can drag on a long time, and in the meantime, people have to go to work every day and get things done for kids,” Sullivan said. “I would prefer a very, very short turnaround to new leadership.”

A few possible internal candidates exist, including Ferebee’s deputy Superintendent Aleesia Johnson and his chief of staff Ahmed Young. Another local option would be to pluck the leader of a neighboring township, as IPS did before Ferebee with former Superintendent Eugene White.

A national search would likely take longer than a local hire, leaving an interim leader at the helm for some stretch of time. But with budget cuts and school closures looming, any outsider would need to be a quick study — and an attractive superintendent candidate might be hesitant to join a district facing those difficult realities.

“This is certainly going to be a more challenging transition, especially if the board does a national search and you look to bring someone in from the outside,” Fisher said. “There’s a lot of data out there, so I don’t think a new superintendent is going to be coming in blind to the challenges that the district faces or, quite frankly, some of the tough decisions we know that they’ll need to make.”

The selection could prove challenging because of the new board make-up. The two new board members are not in lockstep with Ferebee’s philosophies, and it’s unclear how easy it will be for the new board to reach a consensus.

As far as who that new leader should be, insiders focused on the need for someone with strong communication skills, both with the public and with politicians in the statehouse. Ferebee, who took heat for not always garnering grassroot support for changes, specifically mentioned collaboration as a skill that his successor will need.

“Continue the collaborative spirit,” Ferebee advised in an interview with Chalkbeat. “It would be unfortunate if we became isolated from our partners and we’re back to what I call random acts of improvement … We must hold on to it.”

Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, a group that supports charter schools in IPS and has worked closely with Ferebee, agrees. Brown said the district needs the community on its side as it continues rolling out changes.

“One thing I’ve learned over the past five years is that change is really hard, and when you think about the series of changes that have happened in IPS, it has been a lot,” Brown said. “One of the important things when you’re going through change is to ensure that you’re communicating that change effectively, and it’s important to prioritize those who are impacted the most.”

And that isn’t limited to local partners either — the next superintendent of Indiana’s largest school district needs to have the ear of state leaders and lawmakers as well, advocates say, especially as Indiana heads into a new legislative session where school funding and teacher pay will be central debates.

“It’s not just what’s happening with our city, but how we interact with the legislature and how state policy is set.” Fisher said. “That is something that has gone very underappreciated when it comes to how Dr. Ferebee has worked that end of Market Street.”

Ferebee’s replacement will also have to consider whether to keep up his growing network of innovation schools. The controversial schools have won some support across the city, but critics are calling for a closer look at the model before it is allowed to grow. Figuring out how to balance growth and evaluation of the young program will be key to winning the support of board members and community members alike.

Board member Venita Moore said it was too early to make any kind of conclusion about whether innovation schools work or not, but she says over the next year the board will be able to better evaluate where the district is at. Although she said she’d prefer if Ferebee didn’t leave at such a pivotal time, she’s got her eyes on what’s coming next.

“I’m looking for someone that can think outside the box, who is very open to looking at different things but also willing to look at what we have and see how we can shape what we have,” she said. “It’s not a secret that I am open to a portfolio of schools … but I am also about ensuring that as we move forward, that we are assured that the direction we are currently going is in the correct direction.”

Charity Scott, executive director of the IPS Community Coalition, a group that organizes parents and has often spoken against the Ferebee’s administration, said she was skeptical that the district should continue its strong march in favor of charter school partnerships. She thinks the focus of the new board and, eventually, its new leader, should be nailing down what does and doesn’t work.

“The priority should be evaluating the effectiveness of these partnerships,” Scott said. “It’s very concerning that three innovation schools are under (school quality reviews) with the district,” adding that because those schools are measured according to a more generous growth-only yardstick, it’s even more troubling that they’re struggling.

“How can we make sure what we have now is effective for all students, especially those who are most vulnerable — poor, black, brown kids,” Scott said. “We need to know if it’s working in the first place and if it should be expanded.”

New leader

District chief Joris Ray named Memphis schools’ interim leader

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Joris Ray, center, was appointed interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

Joris Ray, who started his 22-year career as a teacher in Memphis schools, will be the interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

The school board voted 5-4 Tuesday evening to appoint Ray, who as a member of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s cabinet oversees the district’s academic operations and student support. An audience composed mostly of educators applauded the announcement.

“A lot of people call Dr. Ray, and he gets things done,” Hopson said at the meeting.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Dorsey Hopson and Joris Ray, right.

Ray could be at the helm of Tennessee’s largest district for anywhere from 8 months to 18 months, as the board looks to hire a permanent leader, Board Chair Shante Avant said. Hopson is leaving the 200-school, 111,600-student district after nearly six years; he will lead an education initiative at the health insurer Cigna, effective Jan. 8.

Hopson will still help Ray transition into his new role a few weeks after his resignation takes effect because of his current contract terms.

Ray, a graduate of Whitehaven High School, said he intends to apply for the permanent position.

“I’m about pushing things forward. No sense in looking back,” told reporters Tuesday, noting that his goal, as he gets started, is “to listen, to get out to various community groups and transition with the superintendent … but also I want to talk to teachers and I want to talk to students because oftentimes they’re left out of the education process.”

The other two nominees to serve as interim superintendent were Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance, and Carol Johnson, a former superintendent of Memphis schools.

Hopson commended both Lin Johnson and Ray as “truly my brothers in this work.” He also acknowledged the work Carol Johnson has done in recent years to train teachers in her role as director of New Leaders in Memphis.

Some school board members wanted to preclude the interim appointee from applying for the permanent post — especially if the interim selection was an in-district hire — but a resolution formalizing that position failed in a 6-3 vote.

“If it were me… I’d think twice about going up against that person to take the job. I really would,” Teresa Jones, a board member, said. But she said she wants to create an environment “where individuals feel where they can come forward and apply” for the superintendent job.

The appointment comes one day after Hopson presented a plan to combine 28 aging school buildings into 10 new ones. Ray said he will look to get community input before pursuing the plan while he is at the helm.

“We need to continue to unpack the plan,” Ray said after the meeting. “And I rely on the community to get their input. But most of all, it’s what’s best for students.”

There’s more from the meeting in this Twitter thread:

Movers and shakers

These Colorado lawmakers will shape education policy in 2019

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Colorado House of Representatives

When the Colorado General Assembly convenes in January, Democrats will control both chambers for the first time since 2014. That shift in the balance of power, along with a lot of turnover in both chambers, means new faces on the committees that will shape education policy.

The incoming committee chairs in both chambers  — state Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango and state Sen. Nancy Todd of Aurora — are former teachers themselves and experienced lawmakers. One of the incoming members, representative-elect Bri Buentello of Pueblo, is currently a special education teacher. The ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, state Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, is also a former teacher and school superintendent. He’s the only Republican returning to the committee from the previous session.

In the House, Democrats now hold a three-seat majority on the committees responsible for deciding which bills will advance to a floor vote. In the Senate, Democrats have a one-vote advantage on most committees.

The new Democratic majorities open the possibility of advancing issues that once stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, like funding full-day kindergarten — a priority of incoming governor Jared Polis — and expanding access to mental health services in school. But these decisions will have to be made without major new revenue and in competition with other budget needs. Democrats may also have to grapple with disagreements among their own ranks on charter schools, teacher evaluations, and school choice, issues that have long enjoyed bipartisan consensus. 

But one newly appointed member of the Senate Education Committee won’t serve out his term. State Sen. Daniel Kagan, a Democrat from Cherry Hills Village, recently announced he’ll resign in January following accusations that he repeatedly used a women’s restroom in the state Capitol. State Rep. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat from Greenwood Village, has announced his intention to seek the vacancy and could take Kagan’s place on the education committee.

The other new Democrat on the Senate committee, Tammy Story, has a long record as an education advocate in Jefferson County. She worked to recall school board members there that supported charters and performance-based teacher pay.

Senator-elect Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, is a former member of the State Board of Education and served on the House Education Committee. State Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, the ranking Republican on the committee, is the former chair.

House Education Committee:

Democrats:

Chair: Rep. Barbara McLachlan, Durango

Vice-Chair, rep.-elect Bri Buentello, Pueblo

Rep. Janet Buckner, Aurora

Rep. James Coleman, Denver

Rep.-elect Lisa Cutter, Jefferson County

Rep. Tony Exum Sr., Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Julie McCluskie, Dillon

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, Commerce City

Republicans:

Ranking member: Rep. Jim Wilson, Salida

Rep.-elect Mark Baisley, Roxborough Park

Rep.-elect Tim Geitner, Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Colin Larson, Ken Caryl

Rep. Kim Ransom, Littleton

Senate Education Committee:

Democrats:

Chair: Nancy Todd, Aurora

Vice-Chair: sen.-elect Tammy Story, Conifer

Sen. Daniel Kagan, Cherry Hills Village

Republicans:

Ranking member: Sen. Owen Hill, Colorado Springs

Sen.-elect Paul Lundeen, Monument