Ritz suit alleges state board broke open meetings law

Glenda Ritz fired back at her political foes on the Indiana State Board of Education Tuesday with a lawsuit charging that its other members broke state law by going around her to ask the legislature to intervene on A to F grades.

Ritz, who by law chairs the state board, said a letter written by the 10 other board members to Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tempore David Long violated state transparency laws. The letter asked the legislators to take over the state’s annual school-grade calculation process, which has been delayed under Ritz.

“No public notice was issued for a meeting that allows this action,” a statement from her office said. “Superintendent Ritz was not made aware of this action until after it was taken, despite her role as chair of the State Board of Education.”
Ritz argued that she had a responsibility to take action.

“When I was sworn in to office, I took an oath to uphold the laws of the State of Indiana,” Ritz said.  “I take this oath very seriously and I was dismayed to learn that other members of the State Board have not complied with the requirements of the law.  While I respect the commitment and expertise of members of the board individually, I feel they have over-stepped their bounds.”
Bosma, who had not been told the suit was coming, was dismayed that the tension on the state board had resulted in legal action.

“My immediate reaction is, can’t we all just get along?” Bosma said. “It would be my hope we all can work together to move Indiana forward.”

But Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association and a Ritz ally, said Ritz may have had no other choice for dealing with an increasingly unruly state board.

“I can’t imagine being Glenda right now,” she said. “I think the board is being unreasonable.”

The suit is the latest evidence that relations between Ritz and the board were growing more strained.

At the state board meeting earlier this month, rising tension boiled over between Ritz, the only Democrat holding statewide office, and the remaining 10 members, all of whom were appointed by Republican governors.

Led by board member Dan Elsener, other board members halted the meeting and asked for a staff report only to be overruled by Ritz, who refused to entertain their motions for a vote on whether to hear the report. That prompted an extended debate over who controlled the agenda that ended when Ritz moved forward without permitting the request.

Elsener said he had not been notified of Ritz’s action nor seen the suit.

“Apparently the state superintendent is suing the State Board of Education,” he said. “It’s totally out of the blue. I’ll keep working with the other board members to advance education in the state but I need to find out what’s going on before I comment further.”

State open meetings law requires “all meetings of the governing bodies of public agencies must be open at all times for the purpose of permitting members of the public to observe and record them.”

When public boards make decisions they must be made in an open meeting.

In this case, Ritz alleges, the decision to make the request of lawmakers was made in private, outside of an open public meeting, and does not qualify under the exceptions spelled out in the law that allow closed meetings.

Bosma and long quickly agreed last week to intervene with the grades, prompting charges from Ritz’s supporters that Republicans were subverting the will of the people who elected Ritz just one year ago in a shocking upset over her predecessor and school reform champion Tony Bennett.

Bosma said he is not aiming to usurp Ritz’s authority.

“I really don’t believe there is a concerted effort to limit her power or take authority away from her,” he said.

But Meredith asked why the state board’s letter came when Ritz was traveling overseas.

“In sports we’d call that unsportsmanlike conduct to do what they did while she wasn’t even in the country,” she said.

The board does not afford Ritz the respect her office demands, Meredith said.

“There is such an obvious lack of respect at every state board meeting,” she said.

The latest battle surrounds the issuing of state ratings for schools and accompanying test score growth data school districts will use this year for the first time as a factor in evaluating teachers and determining if they receive raises.

Last year Bennett issued the grades and released the data later than usual on Oct. 31 but Ritz said this year’s grades will be delayed until mid-November. That’s because widespread computer interruptions during state ISTEP testing last spring called into question the reliability of the scores.

A consultant has since verified that student scores were mostly not negatively impacted after studying the results over the summer. But a small number of scores are being given a second look to assure they should count. Ritz said her office is waiting for the state’s test vendor, McGraw-Hill, to finish that work.

Meredith, who last year taught kindergarten in Shelbyville, said she understands frustration with the delay. Like other teachers across the state, she is eagerly awaiting data on the gains her students made.

“Teachers are frustrated but in the same breath they would say they don’t want to get an inaccurate rating if they could wait two weeks and get an accurate one,” she said.

Meredith said the problems result from a system largely designed by Bennett and his supporters on the state board.

“It’s their own fault,” she said. “It’s a system they created.”