Indiana’s largest school district is on the hunt for a new leader. Now the question is: Who wants the job?
Interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson announced last month that she will seek the role permanently, but whether she is a shoo-in hinges on the quality of the other candidates who apply.
The job could be a plum spot for ambitious educators from around the country since Indianapolis served as a launching pad for its last chief. But many people in local education circles don’t want to hire someone who is already eyeing their next job, and Johnson’s position as a likely favorite could discourage some applicants.
The next superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools will oversee the state’s largest district, which educates about 31,000 students. The last chief made nearly $300,000 per year including perks when he left, and the current interim is paid $222,380.
Over former Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s tenure, the district was transformed through partnerships with outside charter and nonprofit school managers. That strategy has attracted national attention from charter school advocates. But the school system has steep challenges, including a budget crunch that will likely trigger school closures and widening gaps in the passing rates on state tests between students of color and their white peers.
After leading the district for five years, Ferebee left to take the helm of the Washington D.C. district in January. In their search for a new leader, school board members say they aim to cast a wide net. But so far, not many names of potential candidates are circulating.
The application deadline is May 17. Here are the details on who might apply, what might make the job appealing — and what might lead some candidates to skip the listing.
- There are several local candidates who could be a good fit.
In addition to the system that bears its name, Indianapolis has 10 smaller school districts. That creates an automatic pool of potential candidates for the role, including superintendents and their deputies.
Many of the township leaders face the same challenges as Indianapolis Public Schools and that could help prepare them make to the transition, said Carole Craig, a veteran educator and community advocate. Although some townships serve more affluent families, they also struggle with low test scores among students of color.
“Students go back and forth, so many times there’s not a clear line at all between the IPS students and the township school districts,” said Craig.
Other communities around the country face similar issues, said Craig, who hopes to see national candidates. She also said Johnson is an outstanding candidate.
David Greene, a pastor with Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis, said that he has heard of a few good candidates interested in the post, including leaders in Marion Counties. Ideally, he said, he would like the board to hire someone with ties to the city.
“Because of the difficult decisions that need to be made, I think we want it to be somebody that people feel like, ‘hey, this person is invested in the community. They are going to be here to live with these decisions and choices,’ ” Greene said.
There is some precedent for hiring from the ranks of township leaders. Former Superintendent Eugene White, who preceded Ferebee, led the Washington Township school district before taking the helm of Indianapolis Public Schools.
But Dave Dresslar, a former superintendent and retired director of the Center for Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis, said White is the only township chief he recalls moving to Indianapolis Public Schools. “Is it possible, yes,” he said. “Is it common? Probably not.”
- Candidates will be competing against a well-respected interim leader.
Even if the pool is small, many observers argue that the district will have at least one strong candidate in Johnson. A former deputy superintendent under Ferebee, she joined the district four years ago to help shape its partnerships with charter managers. She’s well-liked by many local leaders, particularly supporters of Ferebee’s administration, and some of them are pushing for her to get the position permanently.
Dresslar, who sometimes consults for the district, was candid that he thinks Johnson would be an excellent superintendent. Having her in the pool of candidates means the board won’t have to settle, he said. “I think the board is going to be in a position to be pretty confident that they are going to have one or two really strong candidates to fill the position,” Dresslar said.
Choosing Johnson, however, would inspire opposition from some local advocates. Critics of Ferebee’s administration have argued that Johnson does not have the experience and qualifications they want to see in the next superintendent, in part because she does not have a superintendent license
“We need a superintendent who already has their license [and] has some experience running a district of this size,” Greene said. “There’s a lot that’s at stake here.”
Having a well-regarded interim superintendent who is seeking the position could discourage some candidates from applying for the role.
Other potential candidates might think, “Why should I apply if she’s going to get the job anyway?” said Max McGee, president of Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, a firm that helps districts hire superintendents.
- The district could still have good candidates, although they might not have experience as superintendents.
Still, leading Indiana’s largest school district is likely an appealing job for many educators, McGee said. It is relatively late in the year to attract current superintendents, who largely have contracts for next year, he said. But McGee anticipates the district will get a strong pool of candidates who have served in leadership roles below chief, such as deputy superintendents.
“It’s really a great opportunity,” he said. “I think you’ll probably get some well-qualified and really sharp deputy applicants.”
Mike Magee of Chiefs for Change, a national network of state and district education leaders who recently selected Johnson for its “future” leaders program, said that he has not heard from other members of his group who have applied for the post. But Indianapolis has a strong national reputation that could attract candidates.
“The approach at Chiefs for Change is that even when we feel like there is a very, very strong candidate, it doesn’t hurt to have a highly talented national application pool,” Magee said.