Democrats, Republicans Continue Fight Over Indiana Ed Governance

In Indiana, a tussle continues between Indiana Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, and the Republican-appointed Indiana State Board of Education.

Ritz, who is the only Democratic statewide office holder, is at odds with Republicans and her proposals have repeatedly been resisted by some board members after defeating her predecessor Tony Bennett in November 2012. All current board members were appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Pence or his predecessor Republican Mitch Daniels, and at a meeting on October 2nd, the conflict exploded into a direct confrontation over who controls the board’s meeting agenda, writes Scott Elliott of The Indianapolis Star.

Before the board could hear a recommendation about the state’s troubled A to F school rating system, Ritz, who serves as the board chair, had sharp exchanges with board members Dan Elsener, a self-described independent, and Tony Walker, a Democrat.

At the meeting, the trouble began when Ritz denied board member Sarah O’Brien’s request to hear a staff report. Ritz said the matter could be addressed later in the agenda when staff was scheduled to speak. Elsener made a motion to change the agenda, which was quickly seconded, but Ritz held her ground.

“We have a lot of work to do today,” Ritz said. “The motion is out of order. I am not recognizing the motion.”

Walker then made another motion to suspend the board’s rules that give Ritz control of the agenda, and that motion was also seconded. But Ritz again declined to call a vote.

Walker and Elsener were incredulous. “We have a motion and a second, and you’re telling us we aren’t going to be able to vote on it?” Elsener asked.

Elsener asked for a permission to speak after considerable debate and consultation with staff about the board’s rules. Ritz granted permission to Elsener, who complained that his professional disagreements with Ritz at last month’s board meeting led to personal attacks on his character that he said were “out of bounds.”

“I have never received so many venomous, negative, accusatory-type email communications as after the last board meeting,” he said. “Someone is feeding a narrative, very negative information. It’s cheap politics. It’s tearing people down.”

The situation has begun to concern other board members and the public. Board member said that Brad Oliver the board needs a retreat to build trust among its members. He noted that a recent effort to schedule a board retreat did not result in a date being set.

“I am very concerned we are entering a point that’s unhealthy,” he said. “It is time for some constructive dialogue.”

Toby Millar, a parent, said he was disheartened by the way the board members spoke to each other. He likened this situation to the gridlock in the U.S. Congress that has led to a government shutdown.

“It sounds as if you are putting politics before pupils,” he said. “We need to put those young people first.”

The board did make some progress, though. Regarding Indiana’s much-maligned A to F school rating system, the board finally heard a recommendation from two consultants who reviewed controversial grade changes in 2012 under former state Superintendent Tony Bennett. The consultants recommended the board to hold off on any more state takeovers until new A to F rules are in place.

The report, authored by John Grew and Bill Sheldrake, cleared of Bennett and his staff of any wrongdoing. However, the report did not address questions surrounding their possible political motivations. The consultants urged more transparency on A to F grading and extending the review period for schools to make appeals.

Grew said a state takeover might not be appropriate given the state’s desire to move away from the current grading system. “We understand this is a policy decision and likely a legislative decision as well, but we wanted to introduce that thought,” he said.