Sparks, but no fire

Principal runs for state representative to give teachers a voice

Election Day is cold and rainy.

The sky goes from overcast to drizzling to full pouring rain in Greene County as the last voters leave the polls.

At the Linton, Ind., headquarters of District 62 statehouse candidate Jeff Sparks , supporters and family have gathered to wait for the election results. Campaign treasurer Terri Neighbors  checks news sites for vote tallies on a ? borrowed laptop.

Polls closed more than three hours ago    and Sparks is restless, picking up empty soda bottles and cups and crossing the room to throw them out.  He pulls at his neck while a volunteer speculates about votes in Monroe County.

No update yet.

His phone rings.

Sparks answers to greet his campaign manager  — “Hello, Jon” — and disappears around the corner into a dim storage room. He stands and listens, his reply inaudible over volunteers’ chatter.  His back is to them, his profile just visible over his shoulder as he turns his head ? toward the phone.

He hangs up and walks back into the ? brightly lit room.

“Well, that’s it.”


Chapter 2

Sparks, principal of Linton-Stockton Junior High School, was one of a handful of educators in 2014 running as Democrats for state office to give teachers a louder voice in Indiana education policy.

Since 2012, the Republican governor and Indiana General Assembly have pushed to expand a controversial voucher program that cost the state millions last school year, and created, by executive order, a state agency that appropriated some Department of Education funds and control of the State Board of Education.

“I kinda feel like I’m in a Peanuts cartoon and Lucy’s holding the ball,” said Sparks, whose opponent’s voting record doesn’t display support for public education funding.

The Pence-created Center for Education and Career Innovation was dissolved this month, partly to dispel controversy over its perceived partisanship.  In Indianapolis, State Superintendent of Education Glenda Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence fight for control of Indiana schools, a battle that’s reflected across the state and in Sparks’ home of Linton, Ind.

In District 62, Sparks and Republican incumbent Matt Ubelhor competed for a Statehouse seat. Across the state, educators, lawyers and businessmen fought each other in the midterm elections for General Assembly votes and control of public education in Indiana.

“I think a lot of people were making decisions that don’t know education at all,” Sparks said. “We need to listen to more people who know what’s going on in schools.”


Chapter 3

Sparks gives up his weekends for the campaign, going to spaghetti dinner and pancake breakfast fundraisers all over the district.

At a Hendricksville, Ind., chili cook-off two and a half weeks before the election, Sparks, Greene County Recorder incumbent Stuart Dowden and sheriff candidate Josh Goodman talk about surprises of campaigning, like how much money it takes to win.

Ubelhor, the District 62 incumbent and Sparks’ opponent again this year, spent about $134,100 in the 2012 election, according to campaign finance reports. Sparks, an unknown, spent about $30,500.

Sparks and Indiana Democrats spent more than three times as much on the 2014 campaign. Ubelhor’s final campaign spending totals were about $129,500 as of Oct. 10 campaign finance reports, not including spending in the last month of the campaign. Sparks’ campaign spent more than $96,600 on ads and staff by that time.

“With what I’m spending and they’re chipping in, I could hire three teachers at Linton,” Sparks tells Goodman and Dowden.

Sparks and similar candidates, largely Democrat, are against the state voucher program that lets parents apply for tuition funds to send their children in grades one through eight to a different school. Up to $4,800 could be transferred from a students’ assigned public school to their parents’ choice of school, usually a private or charter.

Sparks says the state can’t support three school systems. Money that goes to charter or private schools could be funding a full-time librarian for Linton-Stockton Junior High.

Supporters say Indiana’s school voucher system, the most flexible in the country according to the Center for Education Reform, allows parents to choose the best schools for their children without worrying about cost.

Sparks’ district is mostly Greene County, with a chunk of Monroe. Jim Mann of District 46 and Daymon Brodhacker of District 60 also campaigned in Monroe County.

At a public forum debate all three men attended, Mann, a high school government teacher from Terre Haute, loudly condemned teaching to the test, a common refrain of educators. Since the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001, schools’ and teachers’ effectiveness is judged partly by how many students pass the state standardized test and improve their scores.

Belinda Sanders, a language arts teacher at Linton-Stockton Junior High, said she feels she has to omit skills like public speaking from her curriculum because they’re not included on ISTEP.

“The state tries to control too much,” she said. “I feel like I’m leaving some things out that will be important down the road.”

Indiana has a waiver that allows some flexibility on NCLB requirements, but the state must administer the federally-approved Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress Plus test to grades three through eight to measure language arts and math skills. Schools that don’t pass enough students can lose funding and are placed on a state watchlist.

Sparks’ school received a D grade from the state from 2011 to 2013 and an A in 2014, keeping it off the Priority Schools list.

After six failing grades in a row, the state can take control of a school from its district and turn it over to a contractor, which has happened to schools in Indianapolis and Gary. The SBOE approved a legislative agenda at their Dec. 3 meeting that includes a proposal to shorten that period to four consecutive failing grades. It could catch chronically failing schools and districts earlier, board members said.

“One of the flaws of intervening in high schools is that students just didn’t begin falling behind at grade nine,” SBOE member Dan Elsener said in a press release. “We need a systemic approach to fix a struggling school district.”


Chapter 4

Friday before the election, Sparks is at the junior high.

He’s about worn out, he says. But he’s only taking Election Day off.

“I have a job.”

Students wearing white and red “Miner Pride” T-shirts, matching the one Sparks is wearing, herd down the hall to the cafeteria.

Sparks stands outside the school office to greet them while they walk past.

He high-fives one boy, claps another on the back with a rhetorical “how we doin’?” Puts his hand out, “whoa,” to get a speedwalker to slow down.

He’ll make about 50 calls tonight after school to absentee voters, reminding them to use the ballots they received by mail. Tomorrow he will visit a pancake breakfast at 6 a.m. and a handful of events after that, plus knocking on doors to remind people to vote.

But right now he can stand still while everyone else charges ahead, tipping his head to smile at the students rushing past.


Chapter 5

Saturday before the election, 22-year-old campaign manager Jon Sutton has driven an hour to Linton headquarters instead of staying in his Bloomington office in the Monroe County Democrats building.

The Linton headquarters are actually the town multi-purpose room. The owner lets people reserve it for anything from city council meetings to an art studio.

Sparks’ campaign reserved it for the last four days of the campaign, but photographs and music stands from other visitors still clutter the room.

A “Jeff Sparks for State Representative” sign leans on the front window next to an oil painting of the sun setting.

They have a 3-point lead with early voters, according to Democrats’ prediction models. Sutton says it like he’s reciting a good luck charm.

He had a job offer in Minnesota that paid twice as much, he said, but he elected to stay in-state.

“You don’t take a job in Indiana as a young idealistic Democrat except to say we can work hard and change some things in this state,” Sutton says, leaning back in his chair, sock feet propped on another chair. “We’re not going to take your majority, but we’re gonna kick a couple of your guys in the teeth.”

Not all the educators running for office have Sparks’ chances this election, Sutton says. He names a couple local races, then closes his eyes and shakes his head, symbolically shutting them down.

“Sometimes it’s just too hard to change the ideological slant of a district.”

On Election Day, it turns out Sutton was right about two of the three races he predicted. Brodhacker and Mann each lost with less than 40 percent of the vote.

He didn’t see his own campaign as clearly.

Jeff Sparks lost the race for District 62 with only 41 percent of the vote.

At Linton headquarters, at 9:30 p.m. on Election Night, a stoic Sparks hangs up his phone to break the news to his supporters.

“I lost.”

Pauses, barely.

“By more than I lost last time.”

He shoves his hands into his pockets, his face tired but blank.

Chatter erupts again, Sparks’ supporters speculating on what happened and offering condolences.

Sparks leans over a volunteer to pick up an empty water bottle. Still cleaning up.

Outside, it’s no longer raining.


Chapter 6

A month later, Jeff Sparks is visibly more relaxed. He leans back in a diner booth at The Grill on Linton’s main street, wearing a well-loved black Purdue sweatshirt.

He won’t run again. He and Sharon   were not on the fence about that.

He won’t second-guess campaign strategy either. You can’t play that game, he says, in a voice that’s the closest he’s been to choked up while talking about the loss.

“We’re not satisfied with the outcome,” he said. “But you know, we’ve gotta be proud of the effort and everything we did to try to get the job done.”

Wednesday after the election, he was back at school.

Linton Junior High students had chosen him to win their mock election.

“I think they were more disappointed in some respects than I was.”

Teachers told him the loss was a message.

“They were all saying things like, ‘it was meant to be’, ‘you’re a much better principal,’ ‘we need you here,” Sparks said.

But he’s worried about those who were “meant to be” in the statehouse, that their priorities for public education don’t match his.

The SBOE approved a proposal in September that would allow people with three years of full-time work experience and a bachelor’s degree in their field to teach it in high school after passing a content test. Critics said the proposed permit would allow schools to hire teachers who aren’t trained in classroom management or other essential teaching skills. It’s yet to be approved by the governor and attorney general.

“No one wants to go into teaching under these conditions right now, and I don’t blame ‘em,” Sparks says. “Legislatively, we’re doing everything we can to discredit the teaching profession and the importance of teaching.”

Funding worries him too. In Linton, which is already losing families because there aren’t jobs available, students taking vouchers could mean Sparks’ school district gets even less funding. Indiana’s program has support from Ubelhor, who voted to approve a 2013 bill that temporarily increased the financial value of the Choice Scholarship vouchers and expanded student eligibility.

The governor’s legislative agenda, released Dec. 4, proposed removing the cap on dollar amounts for voucher scholarships and adjusting funding for charter schools, which Sparks was afraid of.

“Everything about education, I think, is at risk right now,” Sparks says. “I worry about all of it.”

Though he won’t run again, Sparks plans to stay involved in politics. He’ll always be working for someone’s campaign.

“You know when you believe in something, you can’t just sit by, you gotta get involved,” Sparks says. “Some way or another.”