Local News / October 23, 2013

Rift Escalates Between Ritz, Education Board

Lesley Weidenbener - The StatehouseFile.com
Rift Escalates Between Ritz, Education Board

Indiana’s Democratic schools chief and its Republican education board are now in an all-out brawl.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz swung the latest punch on Tuesday, filing a lawsuit that accuses 10 members of the State Board of Education – all of whom were appointed by Republican governors – of violating state law in a secret effort to undermine her.

The reason she’s mad: Board members, who favor the education reform policies that Ritz opposes, drafted a letter last week and sent it to GOP legislative leaders seeking to take the A-F school grading process out of the hands of Ritz’s Department of Education.

That violated the state’s Open Door Law, Ritz said, and forced her to file suit.

“I do not take this action lightly,” Ritz said in a statement about the lawsuit, which was filed in Marion Circuit Court. “But my obligations as elected state superintendent require it.”

It’s the latest in a political and public policy skirmish between Ritz, the board and other GOP officials that began when she won the office in November, ousting Republican Tony Bennett, who had been expected to win easily.

Since then, Republicans and the GOP-appointed education board have taken steps to weaken Ritz’s authority and work around the Department of Education.

Last week, the board sent a letter to Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and asked them to assign the Legislative Services Agency the task of determining A-F grades for schools, even though state law gives the job to the Department of Education.

Ritz said no public notice was issued for a meeting that would have allowed for the action and that she was not made aware it until later, despite her role as the board’s chair.  The lawsuit accuses the board of using staff at the new Center for Education and Career Innovation – which Republican Gov. Mike Pence created in part to staff the education board – of helping carry out what she deems illegal actions.

The agency’s staff did not return a request for comment. But Pence’s spokeswoman, Christy Denault, said the governor “strongly supports the actions taken by the bipartisan membership of the State Board of Education to ensure the timely completion of last year’s A-F school accountability grades.”

“The governor is confident that all relevant Indiana laws were followed,” she said.

But Ritz disagrees.

“When I was sworn in to office, I took an oath to uphold the laws of the state of Indiana,” Ritz said in a statement. “I take this oath very seriously and I was dismayed to learn that other members of the state board have not complied with the requirements of the law. While I respect the commitment and expertise of members of the board individually, I feel they have over-stepped their bounds.”

The suit asks the court to prevent board members from meeting secretly and to prevent the Legislative Services Agency from working on the A-F grades.

The letter to legislative leader was dated Oct. 16 and was signed by the 10 board members. The members said they were concerned that the Department of Education was taking too long to develop the grades as well as teacher effectiveness ratings as required under state law.

Two days later, Long and Bosma sent a letter to the director of the Legislative Services Agency telling him to start working on the grading system. A spokeswoman for Bosma said Tuesday that he would not have a comment on the lawsuit.

The state’s Open Door Law is meant to ensure that government boards and commissions do their work in public. It says that a public meeting is any gathering of the majority of the members of a board if official action is taken.

It defines official action as receiving information, deliberating, making recommendations, establishing policy, making decisions or taking final actions. In those cases, the board must post notice and an agenda and allow the public to attend.

Ritz said in the lawsuit that the action taken by the education board members would not have fit under any of the exemptions outlined by the Open Door Law.

“Since my inauguration, I have worked tirelessly to communicate openly with the board and the public,” Ritz said. “I look forward to continuing to work to improve education for all Indiana students in a fair, transparent and collaborative manner.”

The Department of Education is using in-house attorneys for the lawsuit.

Bryan Corbin, a spokesman for Attorney General Greg Zoeller, who represents various state agencies, boards and the legislature in lawsuits, said he is  reserving comment until he has an opportunity to speak with all of the clients regarding this matter.”

“He hopes his office can serve some useful role in resolving this conflict outside of court,” Corbin said.

Lesley Weidenbener is editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

Photo by Megan Banta, TheStatehouseFile.com