Ritz vs. Pence

The story behind the new complaint against the State Board of Education

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Ed Eiler (Purdue University photo)

The fight over 10 Republican state board of education members’ decision to go over the head of Superintendent Glenda Ritz with a letter to lawmakers about school grades is not over yet.

On Friday, Judge Louis Rosenberg did dismiss Ritz’s lawsuit objecting to the members’ letter. But now a complaint from four private citizens is repeating Ritz’s claims — and their effort could force attention to a question that Rosenberg left unaddressed: whether or not the state board broke the law with its letter.

When StateImpact Indiana first reported the complaint, its origins were somewhat mysterious. Today, the genesis of the complaint is still not completely clear.

One participant, Ed Eiler, said he was recruited to join the action. Indianapolis labor lawyer William Groth, who provided legal advice, said he did not recruit anyone.

Groth said he was contacted by an intermediary who he declined to name, citing attorney-client confidentiality. Both Groth and Eiler said the action was not sponsored or encouraged by Ritz or the Indiana State Teachers Association. Groth said he has not met Ritz nor represented ISTA in the past. He said he believes he was consulted because of his expertise in the Open Door Law, which the complaint says the board violated.

In an interview, Eiler said some light on who the group is and what it hopes to achieve.

Eiler is a Purdue University college professor and the former superintendent of schools in Purdue’s hometown of Lafayette, Ind. He was a passionate and early critic of education reform as former state Superintendent Tony Bennett and then Gov. Mitch Daniels defined it.

He’s also convinced that the Indiana State Board of Education broke state transparency laws when 10 of its 11 members — all of them except state Superintendent Glenda Ritz — jointly signed a letter asking the Republican leaders of the Indiana House and Senate to intervene in a dispute with Ritz over when A to F school grades should be issued. Ritz is the only Democrat holding statewide office. All the other members of the state board were appointed by Republican governors.

So when contacted and asked if he would add his name to a complaint aimed at nullifying the state board’s action, he quickly signed on.

“It’s important for it to be addressed,” Eiler said in an interview Monday. “When you basically have meeting by email, it appears to be a clear violation of the Open Door Law. When you consider public policy issues without an opportunity to provide input or respond to the public … the public has a right to know and participate.”

(For more on Eiler, check out Lafayette Courier Journal columnist Dave Bangert’s recent column.)

Ritz, who was traveling in China when the letter was signed and delivered, had insisted to the state board that the grades, which were issued Oct 31 last year, would have to be delayed until late November because ISTEP testing glitches had backed up the data collection process. The other board members wanted to have the Legislative Service Agency calculate Indiana Department of Education data and determine the grades.

Ritz filed suit upon her return, but problems with court action were immediately evident. Attorney General Greg Zoeller quickly moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that state officials cannot use their own attorneys to initiate lawsuits without consulting with his office, which Ritz didn’t do. Judge Louis Rosenberg, who sounded skeptical of Ritz’s legal argument in a hearing on Tuesday, ultimately dismissed the case on Friday. But in siding with Zoeller on procedure, Rosenberg did not address the merits of the case. In other words, he was silent on whether or not the state board broke the law with its letter.

That’s where the new action comes in.

Eiler and former Merrillville Superintendent Tony Lux are joined by two others — Eiler said he didn’t know them personally but describes them as education activists from Fort Wayne and Bloomington — in appealing to Indiana’s Public Access Counselor, Luke Britt, for a ruling on the legality of the state board’s action. Britt, an August appointee by Republican Gov. Mike Pence, can affirm the board’s action or challenge it. The board is not bound by his ruling and could decide to embrace or ignore it. Still, a ruling from the public access counselor also is a necessary first step to filing a lawsuit. So Eiler and his allies could challenge the state board in court no matter which way Britt rules.

The heart of the issue is whether the board’s letter constituted a policy decision that was made outside of an open public meeting. Public boards in Indiana must do their business in public. While they can meet behind closed doors for discussion or to receive information under certain circumstances, decisions must be made in open meetings. Ritz, and now Eiler’s group, argue that a letter on behalf of the state board signed by a majority of its members that specifically asks another branch of government to take action on its behalf constitutes a policy decision and therefore discussions by email or other means that led to the decision were, in effect, an illegal secret meeting.

“The whole issue is doing public business in public,” Eiler said. “It’s a significant public policy issue. This would be a disturbing precedent when it comes to the public’s right to know about actions that a public board is taking when making public policy.”

The genesis of the complaint is not completely clear. Eiler said he was recruited to join the action, but Groth, who provided legal advice, said he did not recruit anyone. Groth said he was contacted by an intermediary who he declined to name, citing attorney-client confidentiality. Both Groth and Eiler said the action was not sponsored or encouraged by Ritz or the Indiana State Teachers Association. Groth said he has not met Ritz nor represented ISTA in the past but believes he was consulted because of his expertise in the Open Door Law.

But if Ritz and her political allies are not sponsoring the effort, Eiler acknowledged politics and the will of the voters is on his mind.

The state board’s letter, he argued, was an effort to circumvent the the state superintendent’s authority and that of the Indiana Department of Education. He noted that 1.3 million votes were cast for Ritz when she upset Bennett in 2012.

“It’s inconsistent with the mandate the voters gave,” he said. “That was a statement that they were concerned about some of the education reforms that were being enacted and they wanted to be heard that those needed to be thought through, thoroughly, and there needed to be more involvement from the public.”

Ritz vs. Pence

Glenda Ritz drops out of governor's race

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz announcing her ill-fated bid for governor last June. She pulled out of the race 10 weeks later.

Glenda Ritz announced today that her run for Indiana governor is over.

When Ritz boldly announced a run for governor on June 4, she said only by unseating Gov. Mike Pence could she give schools the support they need.

A little more than two months later, a humbled Ritz closed down her mistake-prone and financially wobbly campaign, saying she would instead focus on education and support services for kids by seeking re-election to her current job.

She remained critical of Pence even while bowing out.

“Now is not the right time for me to run for governor,” Ritz said in a statement. “The people of Indiana know we need a new governor, a governor that supports public education that directly affects their abilities for better jobs and stronger communities. As superintendent, I will continue to advocate for what is right to educate our children to improve our economy for all Hoosiers.”

In two months as a candidate, Ritz showed none of the political shrewdness and innovation that propelled her to a stunning victory over then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett in 2012.

Ritz attracted a wide following of educators and small donors, along with union dollars, against Bennett, generating strong enthusiasm through smart social media and word-of-mouth strategies.

But this time her events were less energetic and her campaign was less focused.

Last month, Ritz admitted mistakes and promised to re-file campaign finance reports that appeared to show her campaign violated state law by accepting contributions during the legislative session when lawmakers were crafting the budget, which is illegal.

Reporters sometimes ran into disconnected phone lines or an old voicemail greeting trying to reach the campaign, which never hired a permanent spokesman.

Still, an optimistic Ritz told the Indianapolis Star just last week her campaign was just getting organized. She envisioned strong fundraising ahead and a quality campaign.

While Ritz stayed close in early polling, she trailed far behind Pence and Democratic front runner John Gregg when it came to raising money. Ritz reported raising just over $30,500 so far this year in July, while Gregg had raised $1.76 million and Pence $1.63 million.

Given those troubles, some were not surprised Ritz pulled out.

“I think it was probably a good decision,” said David Dresslar, a former superintendent and director of a University of Indianapolis education leadership center who is now working as a consultant. “I think the reality of fundraising and getting an early start and the war chest John Gregg has developed has really given her an uphill climb.”

The failed campaign could potentially help Ritz by allowing her to focus on her re-election campaign. She is likely to be a formidable candidate to keep her job despite sometimes bitter Republican opposition.

But such a quick exit also diminishes some of the arguments Ritz has made for why Hoosiers should trust her more on education policy than Pence.

For instance, her supporters were fond of pointing out Ritz got more votes defeating Bennett in 2012 than Pence did in his victory over Gregg, suggesting she was more popular than Pence.

Ritz also regularly suggested her disputes with members of the Indiana State Board of Education were really battles between her and Pence. But far from setting the stage for a head-to-head run against Pence in 2016, her campaign turned out to be an early washout.

Dresslar said he doesn’t think Ritz’s ill-fated try for governor will be bad for her or diminish the stature of education issues in 2016.

“I don’t think that this exploration necessarily hurts her,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can fault her for considering this. Education will continue to be a hot-button issue.”

Ritz and Pence became bitter rivals within months of taking office. Pence launched the Center for Education and Career Innovation to support the appointed state board members, and Ritz was deeply critical of it, saying the center undermined her work.

Earlier this year, Pence dissolved CECI but at the same time pushed for a bill to remove the guarantee in state law that Ritz chair the state board. The bill passed, but the change doesn’t go into effect until after the 2016 election.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she still supports Ritz and was not disillusioned by her decision. The union was the largest contributor to her 2012 campaign.

“I would like to know a little bit more about the decision, but I think I know her well enough to know that she’s probably considered what the outcome could be in both the governor’s race and the superintendent’s race,” Meredith said. “I’m wondering what’s going on with (the superintendent’s) race in particular, if that’s had anything to do with her deciding to withdraw or if she’s just wanting to stay focused on what she’s doing.”

Perhaps it’s a case of unfinished business, Meredith said. There are policies in the works, especially around teacher training and pay, that are just getting off the ground, she said.

Either way, Meredith was confident ISTA teachers would stand behind her.

“Our members love her because she is a champion for the children they serve,” she said. “If this is what she thinks she needs to do to make sure they are served well, then they will support that.”

The fact that Ritz is an educator with a long track record of supporting teachers is why teachers like Carlota Holder, who works with students learning English as a new language at Creston Middle School in Warren Township, believe in her, Holder said.

“I trust her,” Holder said. “She was a teacher. She knows what she’s talking about. Where (Pence has) made these poor choices, and we’re now seeing the effects. If he gets re-elected, I don’t know if there’s really any hope for teachers.”

Holder said she was surprised when she heard from her husband after she left work today that the Ritz campaign for governor was shutting down. She’s disappointed Ritz dropped out.

Ritz could have done more to help kids as governor, Holder said, especially when it came to issues like expanding state support of preschool and fighting poverty, than she can as state superintendent.

“I wholeheartedly believe that because she got it the last time that if she ran again (for state superintendent), she’d win,” Holder said “But then I just wonder, are we going to deal with the same drama that we’ve dealt with already this year? I don’t think any of us want that.”

EARLIER:

Indiana State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz announced today she is no longer running for governor, saying she needed to focus instead on her work in education.

The announcement was first reported by WTHR. Ritz will seek re-election as state superintendent, according to a statement by the Indiana Democratic Party.

She recently came under fire after allegations surfaced that she accepted money from donors during this year’s legislative session, a violation of campaign finance law because it was a budget year.

Read Ritz’s statement here:

Over a million schoolchildren are starting school. They begin this school year with the hope and optimism that education can make a difference in their lives. The best use of my time and talents will be to serve our children, their families and the taxpayers of Indiana as superintendent of public instruction. I must continue to be 110 percent engaged in supporting public education.

Now is not the right time for me to run for governor. Under my leadership I have brought the discussion of public education into the public discourse and have started to fundamentally change how we support schools. My work is not finished, and my passion is stronger than ever. I am resolutely dedicated to educators students and families from pre-K to graduation.

Recent stories in the news media have pointed out that we do indeed have major issues that impact our families. Two of them particularly concern me — the rising childhood poverty rate and a major decrease in the numbers of college-level students pursuing majors that will lead to teaching. Both of these issues require a re-doubling of my commitment to serve as superintendent and to provide the needed wraparound services to our children and to address the barriers that have been put in place to attract and retain teachers.

The people of Indiana know we need a new governor, a governor that supports public education that directly affects their abilities for better jobs and stronger communities. As superintendent, I will continue to advocate for what is right to educate our children to improve our economy for all Hoosiers. With the help of all of you, we will keep education the focal point of the gubernatorial race.

Many of my supporters will be disappointed with my decision, but I know that we share a vision for education. My heartfelt thanks goes out to those who have so passionately supported my campaign for governor.

With my personal commitment to doing what is needed to prepare this and future generations for the challenges of tomorrow, I will enthusiastically seek re-election as your superintendent of public instruction.

Analysis

5 ways Glenda Ritz's run for governor will change education and politics

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz at a meeting of the Indiana State Board of Education earlier this month.

Just when it looked like Indiana’s fierce education debates could simmer down, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s run for governor could turn up the flame.

On June 1, a retooled Indiana State Board of Education met for the first time, with pledges all around to focus on the needs of students and move past political sniping.

But two days later, Ritz’s announcement included political broadsides to Gov. Mike Pence, criticizing his education policies as detrimental to the state’s economy.

As Ritz now steps beyond a focus just on schools, here are five ways her run for governor will change the game for Indiana’s ongoing conversation about education.

Education is likely to be a central issue in the 2016 election.

Schools were only a small part of the debate in the 2012 race for governor between Pence and his Democratic opponent, John Gregg. In fact, education really was not a big deal at all that year until Ritz’s shocking defeat of Tony Bennett on Election Day. Ritz and the race for state superintendent were largely ignored by the media, and even Bennett dismissed her call for a series of debates. Ritz and Bennett instead held one joint appearance.

As long as Ritz remains in the 2016 governor’s race, education will be a central theme this time. She will certainly force a conversation about education in the primary election, as she is one of the state’s few high-profile Democrats. Ritz so far has trained her fire on Pence, rather than on her Democratic opponents, Gregg and state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, with Pence’s management of education policy as her primary target.

There could be hotly contested primary elections next May

As it stands now, Indiana is looking at a three-way race for the Democratic nomination to challenge Pence for the next 11 months. All three candidates have different strengths and claims for why they should be nominated. Ritz is the state’s best-known Democrat currently in office and has had some success in political wars with Pence. Gregg lost a surprisingly close race with Pence last time and could do better this time given Pence’s recent decline in popularity and political problems. Some Democrats believe Tallian, who is less well-known, might be the strongest match for the political views of core Democratic voters.

On the Republican side, Pence could also face a primary race. Fort Wayne car dealer Bob Thomas has toyed with running, Former Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle also has suggested he might help find a challenger for Pence in frustration with the governor’s support of a religious freedom bill that prompted a backlash against the state. This is unusual. Primary challenges to sitting governors are exceedingly rare in Indiana.

So it appears there could be one, or possibly even two, big primary election votes to select the party standard-bearers for the 2016 governor’s race.

The race for state superintendent could also get interesting

If she is not picked by voters to be the Democratic nominee for governor in May of 2016, Ritz has said she likely would seek renomination at the party convention to run again for state superintendent. Ritz said she was looking for a back-up candidate who could run for her current job if Democratic voters choose her to take on Pence.

But that could get tricky.

It might be difficult, first of all, to get a strong candidate willing essentially to be on standby. A run for statewide office is a difficult challenge that requires a strong commitment. Also, Democrats will likely not want to lose the only statewide office they control.

Meanwhile, Ritz’s run for governor provides an opening for a Republican challenger, and it might create an incentive for any Republican considering a run to get into the race early. With Ritz focused on the governor’s race, there will be an opportunity for a Republican opponent to push a different vision for the office and emphasize that her attention is divided between the job she was elected for and the one she hopes to have next.

Pence also could be helped if an ally were to declare early a run for state superintendent. Together they could coordinate critiques of her work as superintendent.

Politics could heat up again at the Indiana State Board of Education

Changes in state law this year prompted the 10 other board members besides Ritz to be reappointed, and about half the appointees are new faces. There has been much optimism that an overhauled board could move past infighting, which some have characterized as at least partly driven by politics.

But eight of the 11 board members are still Pence’s appointees. Ritz’s run for governor will ensure that she will be publicly critical of Pence and speak regularly about her policy differences with him. The new board is still more aligned with Pence on policy questions, so that could raise new tensions.

Hoosiers will finally get to decide who they like better: Ritz or Pence

Since her election in 2012, Ritz supporters have frequently cited the fact that the 1.3 million votes she received were more than Pence earned in the governor’s race that year, implying that she is, in fact, more popular than he is.

But there’s been much dispute over the meaning of Ritz’s 2012 win. Was it more an affirmation of voter affection for Ritz, then a political unknown, or a rejection of sometimes blunt-speaking Bennett, whose rhetoric angered many educators. Some of the tension between Pence and Ritz comes from the fact that both of their camps interpreted the 2012 results differently.

In 2016, Ritz will test the theory that she has more support and public trust than Pence. If she does, and she can convince voters they can also trust her on issues beyond education, she could be the next governor. If Pence beats her in the general election, he’ll have a strong argument that most Hoosiers prefer him and his approach. If Ritz fails to secure the Democratic nomination, Pence will be able to make the case that even Democrats aren’t ready to put their full faith in Ritz.