Ritz, state board's lawyers duel over A to F rules

Attorney Kristie Anderson, left, representing State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education, debated with Michelle McKeown, right, an attorney for Gov. Mike Pence’s new Center for Education and Career Innovation, before the Indiana State Board of Education Friday.

The struggle between State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence for control of Indiana’s education policy reached a fever pitch Friday with dueling lawyers arguing over interpretations of Indiana’s A to F rules before a sometimes befuddled Indiana State Board Education.

Kristie Anderson, representing Ritz and the the Indiana Department of Education, stood side-by-side with Michelle McKeown, an attorney for Pence’s new Center for Education and Career Innovation, offering competing interpretations of state law.

Board members, meanwhile, sparred over which advice to follow.

“It seems as if our debate is about the board’s role and when it should start,” Ritz said

The first meeting since tension boiled over last month into a lawsuit by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz against the other 10 members of the board lived up to its billing as another battle royale.

Ritz sued after the other board members wrote a letter to legislative leaders asking them to intervene to help force the quicker release of A to F grades. Ritz, who said the grades are delayed only because the data is not complete, charged the letter amounted a board decision made outside of a public meeting in violation of state transparency laws. The suit is awaiting a judge’s ruling.

Despite the awkwardness, however, all the board members in attendance voted for a final schedule to releasing A to F grades, which have been delayed by problems with ISTEP scoring.

That process will be:

  • Today. The education department will release A to F data to the Legislative Service Agency, which will double-check its calculations.
  • Nov. 15. Preliminary grades will be released to schools, but not publicly.
  • Nov. 15 to late December. Schools can file appeals.
  • Late December. The state board will meet in a special session to approve A to F grades and publicly release them.
  • January of 2014. Final grades, with all corrections made, will be certified by the board.

Getting to that schedule, however, took more than two hours of debate, which began right from the start as board member Gordon Hendry ask Ritz to identify a staff attorney, Andersen, seated with her at the board table.

She said Andersen was there as a “parliamentarian” only to give Ritz feedback later about the meeting.

“I hope this meeting will be a kinder, gentler one,” Hendry said.

It wasn’t.

For the second straight meeting, board members interrupted Ritz and urged her to add agenda items.

Ritz denied those motions, angering them.

Board members say rules established in May allow them to make additions to the agenda, but Ritz said her office is in discussion with Pence’s office about reworking the rules.

“These are our rules of procedure, not yours or the governor’s rules,” board member David Freitas said. “We are the actual board members.”

But Ritz is the board chair, and she moved on without acting on the motions and called Andersen forward to give a legal opinion on A to F grade release.

Andersen said the grades should not be released to schools until they were first approved by the board, which could delay the public release further while schools appeal. But board members called forward McKeown, who said the state can send preliminary grades to schools vet and appeal before the board approves and releases them.

“There isn’t anyone more committed to releasing these grades,” Ritz said. “However there are procedures that must be followed.”

After a long discussion, the board ultimately sided with McKeown.

Board member Brad Oliver said getting the grades out more quickly was important but so was making sure they were correct.

“There are people out in field who honestly believe we’re in such a rush we don’t care.,” he said “We do care. I find that offensive.”

A to F grading has been controversial in Indiana since its inception two years ago. In 2012, the calculation method was changed under for Superintendent Tony Bennett, who became embroiled in a controversy after he left office as to whether his staff manipulated the system. He has argued a legislative study exonerated him but critics say questions remain.

The state legislature earlier this year decreed that the calculation method be rewritten. The current formula considers the rate at which students in a school pass state tests and give extra credit to schools with students who see their test scores grow at a faster rate than students with similar demographic profiles. A state panel on Friday presented recommendations for a new formula that measures growth based on how much progress students make toward a variety of benchmark scores.

The state board has until Nov. 15 to approve a new A to F plan. The board will meet next week to consider voting on the panel’s recommendations.