The Herald Bulletin

November 13, 2013

Dispute sends Ind. education board into chaos

Tom LoBianco
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — A meeting that was expected to produce a new plan for grading Indiana schools turned chaotic Wednesday when the state's top education official stormed out, escalating an already testy battle with Republican Gov. Mike Pence.

Democratic Superintendent Glenda Ritz abruptly left the meeting of the state school board she chairs when a Pence appointee tried to transfer certain student assessment powers from her office to a second education department created by the governor earlier this year.

"This meeting is adjourned," Ritz said repeatedly, while packing her things and walking out. Department of Education staff quickly followed suit, while leaders of Pence's second education department and the other board members stayed put. It is unclear whether Ritz ended the meeting.

Indiana's "A-F" school grading formula was investigated after an Associated Press report showed Ritz's predecessor, Tony Bennett, changed the rules to raise the grade of a political donor's charter school from a "C'' to an "A'' last year. Bennett resigned his job as Florida's schools chief amid the scandal.

The explosion Wednesday was the latest in an acrid battle, marked by a lawsuit Ritz filed — but dropped last week — against other school board members over control of the state's school grading formula.

At stake is control of Indiana's education system and the sweeping education changes put in place by Bennett and former Gov. Mitch Daniels. Indiana Republicans approved the nation's most sweeping school voucher law in 2011 and have expanded on it somewhat, in addition to dozens of other changes long sought by conservative education reformers.

Former Bennett staffers have accused Ritz of conducting a hit on Bennett through a series of public records releases. The Associated Press obtained campaign fundraising lists Bennett and his staff kept on state computers.

The other members of the state board, a bipartisan group all appointed by Pence or Daniels, have accused Ritz of dragging her feet in implementing laws she openly campaigned against last year.

Board meetings have become a political circus, with Ritz refusing to recognize board members and those members frequently talking over her. Lawyers for the competing Ritz and Pence education departments have even offered competing legal advice to the board, while jockeying for control of the sole microphone reserved for witnesses to the board.

After Ritz left Wednesday, another board member, Republican Brad Oliver, said he was withdrawing the motion that sparked the fight. The motion would have moved facets of the state's career and college prep testing to Pence's second education department.

"I don't want to exacerbate this," Oliver said.

It's unclear whether the meeting was formally in progress at the time Oliver withdrew his motion, or whether Ritz had successfully ended it. Meetings are typically ended through a motion to adjourn, followed by a "second" support of the motion and a vote by the board.