Luberta Jenkins would have liked to hear more about education during Monday’s mayoral debate, even though she knows the Indianapolis’ leader has limited influence on schools.

“They can be passionate, they can be enthusiastic,” said Jenkins, a retired Indianapolis Public Schools administrator. “But in terms of actually doing something, they are not in a position to impact change.”

Jenkins spent 10 years leading a program at Arsenal Technical High School, the site of the debate between Democratic Mayor Joe Hogsett, who is running for a second term, and his challenger, Republican state Sen. Jim Merritt.

When it comes to education, the relative weakness of the mayor’s office was an undercurrent of the debate. The African American Coalition of Indianapolis, a collection of civic and religious organizations, hosted the event, focused on how the city’s leader can improve the welfare of black residents.

Most city schools are part of 11 independent public school districts that are not under mayoral control. Charter schools, which the mayor has the authority to approve, were well-established before Hogsett took office.

The debate followed weeks of discussion about how the mayoral candidates would address the challenges facing Indianapolis’ black community. It followed three smaller meetings on the same subject, hosted by the Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis and the Baptist Ministers Alliance.

In those earlier forums, black leaders pressed the candidates on issues, such as criminal justice, city contracting with minority-owned businesses, and whether the city’s leader should have a specific “black agenda,” something Hogsett initially resisted. Education was among the top issues outlined by the groups, but the plans the candidates proposed were relatively limited in scope.

Hogsett, who discussed his accomplishments and goals at a presentation earlier Monday, pointed to his new Indy Achieves program. It provides grants and supports to help students pursue and finish post-secondary education.

Joe Hogsett at a forum hosted by Concerned Clergy and the Baptist Ministers Alliance.
PHOTO CREDIT: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat

Hogsett described Indianapolis’ education landscape as “segregation that springs forth from the political compromises of Unigov” — a 1970 change that brought together about a dozen communities in Marion County under the umbrella of Indianapolis but left 11 independent, racially divided school districts.

Unigov has “adversely impacted the quality of public education and its delivery,” Hogsett said during the debate. But he stopped short of proposing an overhaul of the city’s education system, describing his role in Indianapolis schools as a partner to existing superintendents.

Merritt called for an increased number of local residents on charter school boards and said that if he is elected, zero-tolerance discipline “will cease in charter schools” and he will work with Indianapolis Public Schools to end harsh discipline at their campuses.

Jim Merritt at a forum hosted by Concerned Clergy and the Baptist Ministers Alliance.
PHOTO CREDIT: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat

Merritt criticized Hogsett’s administration for the recent closure of two charter schools the mayor’s office oversees, Indianapolis Lighthouse East and Marion Academy. Without Lighthouse, the far east side community, where it was located, now lacks a high school and that could lead students to drop out of school, he said. And Marion closed abruptly in the days before the school year began. Both schools were closed by their local boards, rather than the mayor’s office.

Adrianne Slash, president of The Exchange, a young professionals group at the Indianapolis Urban League, said it was a good opportunity to hear from the candidates on education.

“Right now we are in a place of asking a lot of questions, and we need answers, because we’ve got kids that are completely under-funded,” Slash said. “They need more support, they need better opportunity, and we can only give them that if we have educators that have the incentives and the things that they need to stay and do a great job.”

Election Day is Nov. 5. Early voting is already underway.