From the Statehouse

A case study in Indiana State Board of Education dysfunction

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry.

How did a seemingly simple procedural change, one that Indiana State Board of Education members and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz unanimously favored, become a half-hour debate and result in a split vote on Wednesday?

For regulars at state board meetings, these sorts of puzzlingly contentious moments may be among the few board actions that seem routine.

The real issue in this case was not so much about the question before the board — a proposal to expand public comment at its meetings — but more like another round in the battle among Indiana State Board of Education members and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz over whether she had adhered to the board’s rules.

Disagreements over meeting rules have been a recurring theme for the board, usually accompanying new cracks in the fault lines of hard feelings about how Ritz has managed her role as chairwoman, and how its members have behaved, going back months.

This time, board member Andrea Neal’s suggestion to allow those who come to board meetings to speak on any topic sparked the skirmish.

Though nearly every member of the board said they liked the idea, Neal’s motion only passed 7-3.

Here’s how they got there.

Neal had recently expressed surprise and dismay to find the rules limited speakers to talking only about items on the board’s agenda. In response, Ritz named a committee to develop a recommendation.

And that’s where the trouble began.

Board member Gordon Hendry said he wished to attend the committee meeting but was upset that Ritz sent him notice too late to allow him to plan for it. The meeting was held early Wednesday, before the 9 a.m. state board meeting. Also unable to attend the meeting were state board staff members.

Hendry called for delaying the vote until a future meeting to allow more discussion and was backed by board member Brad Oliver, along with David Freitas and Dan Elsener who were participating by phone.

“The board members on the phone haven’t even seen current proposal,” Hendry complained.

Oliver then cited the board’s own rules that require public notice five days in advance.

The state board has had regular battles over its rules since 2013, and disputes with Ritz as to whether she has faithfully followed them. Those tensions culminated in an explosive November meeting that ended when Ritz abruptly declared they were adjourned.

Since then, changes to the board rules have been intended to mend fences and guard against any future clashes. New procedures that have been added since November have made it easier for board members to place items on the agenda and to make motions during board meetings.

When it comes to scheduling meetings, however, Ritz said Wednesday the 11 board members’ many work and personal commitments make it difficult for her to always find times that work for everyone.

“I have other duties than my state board duties,” she said. “I am an elected official. I am swamped in my superintendent duties.”

But Oliver and others argued that the meeting notice is a responsibility that isn’t optional. Not just the board members had this concern. After the meeting, a newspaper reporter in attendance made formal complaints to the Indiana Department of Education and the state board for failing to provide public notice of the committee meeting.

Ritz tried to guide the discussion back to Neal’s motion.

“It’s a simple matter of an up or down vote,” Ritz said, urging the board to vote.

An exasperated Neal agreed.

“This is a question of expanding public comment,” she said.

The new rules passed despite no votes from Oliver, Freitas and Elsner.

Oliver and B.J. Watts said they agreed with Hendry, but voted yes because they supported expanding the comment rules.

In the end, Hendry also voted yes, citing the same reason.

The board’s next scheduled meeting is July 9, but Ritz said she would be reaching out about dates and times for a second June meeting soon.

For other stories from a busy state board meeting Wednesday see:

 

power players

Who’s who in Indiana education: Sen. Dennis Kruse

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos and Sarah Glen

Find more entries on education power players as they publish here.

Vitals: Republican representing District 14 and parts of Allen and Dekalb counties. So far, has served 13 years in the Senate (current) and 15 years in the House. Kruse began his career as a teacher in 1970, spending five years in the classroom. Once he left education, he became an auctioneer and got involved in real estate.

What he’s known for: Kruse has served as Senate Education Committee chairman for eight years. While he is a less vocal advocate for choice-based education reform measures than his House counterpart, Kruse is a staunch conservative who has pushed — with varying levels of success — for incorporating more religion in public schools.

Career highlights: In 2011, Kruse was the author of Senate Bill 1, a massive bill that established the state’s formal teacher evaluation system. He has also consistently supported bills seeking to improve school discipline, before- and after-school programs and teacher preparation. This year, Kruse has authored bills dealing with school start dates, contracts for district superintendents, school employee background checks and testing.

On religion in schools: Kruse and fellow Sen. Jeff Raatz introduced a resolution this year that, according to the National Center for Science Education, has the “teaching of evolution” as “the specific target of the bill.” Previously, Kruse has put forward other legislation that would encourage the teaching of creationism and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at the start of the school day, but none of the bills passed. In 2015, Kruse was also a co-author of the controversial religious freedom bill.

On toeing the party line: Despite his conservative politics, Kruse doesn’t always line up with the will of his party. Republican leaders this year are calling for making the state superintendent an appointed, rather than elected, position, but Kruse won’t back the switch. Instead, Kruse has said he believes in elections and that people should get to make choices about their representation.

For that reason, some have speculated that’s why the senate’s version of the bill bypassed his education committee and instead was heard through the elections committee.

Who supports him: Kruse has received campaign contributions from Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group that supports school choice, charter schools and vouchers; K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country; and Education Networks of America, a private education technology company.

Legislative highlights via Chalkbeat:

Bills in past years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

Also check out our list of bills to watch this year.

seesaw

Tennessee required more recess, but teachers now say it’s too much

PHOTO: Jon Zlock, LEAD Public Schools
Nashville students play during recess at a charter school operated by LEAD Public Schools.

For years, Jamie Petty’s sixth-grade students didn’t have recess — a problem, he thought, since research shows that recess keeps children healthy and focused.

Then Tennessee’s legislature passed a requirement last year that students through the sixth grade get a minimum of two 20-minute periods of non-structured physical activity at least four days a week.

Now play time is overtaking valuable class time, says Petty, a world history teacher at Normal Park Magnet Middle School in Chattanooga. He said one daily period of recess should suffice.

“Physical activity is so important for the kids, and we definitely want that,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to protect instructional time, too.”

Lawmakers have heard similar concerns from educators across Tennessee since the school year started.

“We passed a bill, and it was a fiasco,” said Rep. Bill Dunn.

The Knoxville Republican wants to rein in recess in Tennessee schools. On Wednesday, his bill to do so was approved by a House education subcommittee. Instead of daily mandates of three 15-minute periods for kindergarten and two 20-minute periods for grades 2-6, the bill would institute weekly requirements of 130 minutes of physical activity for elementary schools and 90 minutes for middle and high schools.

Lawmakers hope the change will give schools more flexibility to fit recess into their schedules.

Dunn’s bill also would allow recess to include “structured play.” Last year’s legislation said students must have “non-structured” play, meaning teachers can’t organize sports or games.

Teachers argue that both kinds of play have value.

Kennisha Cann, a literacy coach with Hamilton County Schools, occasionally leads students in games to get the wiggles out. “Kids need to learn how to follow directions, take turns, how to socialize with other children,” she said.

Either way, many educators are happy that the legislature is recognizing the importance of recess.

“Standards are so much harder now,” said Pat Goldsmith, a school psychologist at Chattanooga’s Red Bank Elementary Schools. “Students really need that break.”