State board struggles to avoid further delay of A to F release

Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the Indiana State Board of Education will get almost three weeks to cool off in the wake of their last, explosive get together.

But a big question remains: Can the squabbling board then put aside battles for control of its agenda and over its own rules in time to approve long-delayed A to F school grades by year’s end?

Come the first week of December, questions about whether the 10 Republican-appointed board members can effectively conduct business with Ritz, their chair and the only Democrat holding statewide office, will quickly be tested on consecutive days.

Lou Ann Baker, the board’s spokeswoman, said its representatives have been meeting with Ritz’s team and expect two previously scheduled meetings will be held that week — a strategic planning session on Dec. 3 and the regularly scheduled monthly board meeting on Dec. 4.

After that, the board has so far not been able to decide whether and when it can meet for a third time in December to approve and publicly release A to F grades, but Baker said that is the goal. A spokesman for Ritz confirmed that is where the talks stand.

There has been no discussion of moving the regular meeting, held the first Wednesday of the month, to later in December so the Indiana Department of Education could have more time to finish preparing A to F grades for their public release, according to Baker. Before bickering led Ritz to suddenly end the last meeting, the board had not yet acted on her request to delay December’s meeting almost two weeks so A to F grades could be approved then.

The grades were delayed, Ritz has said, because of testing errors in the spring and appeals that led some student tests to be rescored to ensure accurate results. Last week schools learned their preliminary grades. An appeals process, for schools that think their grades were affected by data errors, is underway.

A to F grades have been a flashpoint in Ritz’s relationship with her fellow board members. Frustrated with what they viewed as Ritz’s foot-dragging, the other board members last month jointly signed a letter to Republican legislative leaders asking them to intervene by having the Legislative Service Agency calculate the grades. Ritz then unsuccessfully sued the board, saying the letter amounted to a board decision made outside of a public meeting in violation of state transparency laws. A group of citizens have taken up her cause by filing a complaint against the board with the public access counselor, who considers questions of government transparency, after a judge ruled Ritz could not sue without permission from Attorney General Greg Zoeller.

If A to F grades are not ready on Dec. 4 and the board does not meet again next month, it would push the release of A to F grades into 2014. Last year, grades were issued on Oct. 31.

Before the board even gets to its regular monthly meeting it will first need to confront another tough issue board members have battled over: strategic planning.

Board member Dan Elsener, Ritz’s chief adversary in recent months, first suggested the board create a strategic plan during the summer. Ritz initially protested that she should lead the process instead of Elsener. It was one of many procedural questions on which Ritz has clashed with the board.

On Nov. 13, that simmering tension erupted when Ritz refused to allow a vote on a motion from board member Brad Oliver, calling it “improper.” Ritz argued the motion would give control of Indiana’s academic standard setting process to the state board staff and the Center for Education and Career Innovation, a new agency created by Gov. Mike Pence in August. Standards are under her authority by state law, Ritz argued. Zoeller’s office confirmed the question of the motion’s legality has been referred to him but declined to say how or when he will respond.

When board members pushed Ritz to allow a vote, she abruptly declared the meeting adjourned and left. The unusual end to the meeting left board members unclear about how and when they would next meet until staff from CECI and the education department this week began working toward the already-planned December meetings as the next time the board would convene, Baker said.