BdMembersConfer
State board members Cari Whicker (right) Dan Elsner (center) and B.J. Watts (obscured) speak with CECI attorney Michelle McKeown after State Superintendent Glenda Ritz walked out of the meeting.

The Indiana State Board of Education descended into chaos Wednesday as Superintendent Glenda Ritz declared the meeting adjourned and walked out over the objections of the rest of the board.

Rife with confusion, the remaining nine board members tried to press on until an attorney and a representative from Gov. Mike Pence’s office advised them to end the meeting without further action.

“We have debates every meeting between the State Board of Education’s lawyers and the Department of Education’s lawyers,” an exasperated Ritz said just before leaving. “I’m taking this to the attorney general.”

Incredulous, board member Dan Elsener, who serves as secretary, tried to step in and continue the meeting.

“This is bad governance, bad leadership and it’s inappropriate,” Elsener said.

Debate throughout the three-hour meeting repeatedly came back to questions of control — who writes the official minutes, who sets the agenda, who gets to speak during discussion and which staff members get to have input into the board’s decisions. On Tuesday, Ritz authored a newspaper guest column sharply criticizing Pence’s push into education policy making as an “education takeover.”

Tension between Ritz and Pence — and his supporters, Ritz’s fellow board members — has built since the legislature earlier this year gave the governor control of some state education funds in the state budget. Pence then used the funds to launch a new Center for Education and Career Innovation, which has hired a staff to advise the state board separately from Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education.

Creating the center yanked what Ritz contends is a crucial piece of control of the state’s education agenda away from her. Previously, the state board relied on the staff of the superintendent-led Education Department for data, legal advice and other information.

The fight for control was evident at a meeting last week when opposing lawyers — one for Ritz and another for the board — stood side-by-side and offered competing interpretations of state law. That time, the dispute was over the same issue the board was supposed to tackle today: the issuing of A to F school grades.

With a potentially controversial A to F plan already passed earlier in the meeting, it was a procedural question that led the board into discord this time.

At today’s meeting, frustration from all sides exploded over a seemingly pedestrian request from board member Brad Oliver, a college professor, to more deeply involve colleges in the standards setting process. Indiana is currently reexamining its 2010 decision to follow Common Core national standards.

Ritz objected to the language of the resolution Oliver proposed, which mentioned the governor’s new center. “This resolution says the [CECI] staff is to coordinate the board’s responsibilities and activities, to do all of the things the department has a responsibility to do,” she said. “There is a reason for the check and balance that we have regarding standards.”

When Oliver and others asked Ritz to put his motion to a vote, she refused. “I deem it improper,” Ritz declared. “The motion, as its written, invokes CECI staff being involved in overseeing the entire standard review question.”

Ritz said she would delay any further action on Oliver’s motion until she could obtain a ruling from Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s office as to whether the board would violate state law by passing the motion. Zoeller declined comment Wednesday.

“Truly, an improper motion means the motion itself interferes with statutory obligations,” she said.

Board member Gordon Henry then “called the question,” trying to force a vote.

“You are not the attorney general,” board member David Freitas told Ritz. “We are a public entity. We have the right to vote. No chair can stop us.”

With that, Ritz declared the meeting adjourned, stood from her seat and left. Soon after, the online broadcast of the meeting was ended and workers began removing broadcasting equipment over board members’ objections. Board members continued their discussion even as equipment was being carried out of the room.

After briefly continuing discussion with a CECI lawyer, Elsener suggested a recess. When they returned, Claire Fiddian-Green, Pence’s education adviser who oversees CECI, cautioned the board not to try to approve Oliver’s motion until she could reach Zoeller’s office for advice. Oliver withdrew the motion.

Fiddian-Green told board members there was “ample precedent” to continue the meeting with Elsner as a substitute for Ritz serving as chair. She also noted future state board meetings could be called without Ritz’s approval by any three board members. But at Elsener’s request, the board instead adjourned a second time.

The next meeting board is scheduled for Dec. 4, but Fiddian-Green said either Ritz or other board members could call a special meeting sooner. Meanwhile, both sides have already asked Zoeller to rule on whether Oliver’s motion was permissible and whether Ritz had the power to declare it improper.

Debate throughout the three-hour meeting repeatedly came back to questions of control — who writes the official minutes, who sets the agenda, who gets to speak during discussion and which staff members get to have input into the board’s decisions. On Tuesday, Ritz authored a newspaper guest column sharply criticizing Pence’s push into education policy making as an “education takeover.”

In a press conference later Wednesday, Ritz said CECI staff is making it impossible for the state board to get things done.

“Let me be clear,” Ritz said. “The resolution that brought today’s meeting to a halt was written by CECI staff and it improperly inserted state board of education staff, working for the Governor’s new education agency, to take over the academic standards review process. The resolution was ruled improper because it used CECI staff in a manner that violates Indiana law.”

Speaking to reporters a short time later, Pence said he was confident “misunderstandings” between Ritz and the state board could be resolved if Indiana remains committed to recent accountability policies that he said helped raise test scores.

“I respect the role that the department of education and the superintendent play in education and will continue to respect that role,” he said. “We’re going to continue to work in a way that is respectful and civil but determined to advance the kind of progress we’ve been making.”

Pence authored his own op-ed published Wednesday, which aimed to cited evidence that educational achievement was improving in the state, in response to Ritz’s from Monday.

In her final comments before the meeting ended, board member Andrea Neal asked if there was some way for the board to gather for a retreat or meet with a mediator.

“This dysfunction is evident for everyone to see,” she said. “The breakdown of trust is serious. We need some kind of reconciliation process to move forward with the chair.”