Meeting to heal state board leads to new Ritz vs. Pence turmoil


State board member Brad Oliver and Superintendent Glenda Ritz listen to a presentation at Wednesday’s meeting. (Scott Elliott)

Glenda Ritz leveled new charges Wednesday that Gov. Mike Pence and his appointees are looking for ways to strip her powers. The latest salvo in an ongoing war of words between Ritz and Pence came just after a meeting Pence helped engineer aimed at mending fences in Ritz’s strained relationship with the Indiana State Board of Education. After an informal meeting, during which the board met with a mediator, Ritz unloaded on the Pence-created Center for Education and Career Innovation, saying she could prove one of its goals was to diminish her authority. Ritz is one of two elected state superintendents in the nation who also chair their state’s board of education. Board members have complained that Ritz uses her chairwoman role to thwart the board’s will and CECI’s work, while Ritz argues she enforces the rules to protect the authority of state superintendent. Now, Ritz said, CECI is determined to rewrite the rules to have its way. “We have a document that actually says their goal is to remove me as the chair in the legislative session and if not that way then doing it through the board operating procedures,” she said. Shortly after, her staff released an Oct. 3 email from a CECI attorney to Claire Fiddian-Green, CECI’s co-director, with a list of apparent legislative policy goals, including one under the heading “SBOE chair.” The “problem” listed under that heading states that the state superintendent serving as the board chairwoman “introduces real as well as perceived conflicts of interest” and the document suggests that the board’s “leadership by rights lie with the executive branch leader as defined in the state constitution.” As a solution, the document states: “Revise the statute to provide that the governor appoints the chair of the state board education from among the gubernatorial appointments.”

State board members follow along with a presentation at Wednesday’s meeting. (Scott Elliott)

Since Ritz is elected, not appointed, such a move would make her ineligible to be board chairwoman. The document further states that an alternative approach would be to revise the state board’s rules so the chair could not reject agenda items or motions, as Ritz has done several times. Lou Ann Baker, CECI spokeswoman, said the document was nothing more than a list of ideas, something she said state agencies routinely generate in anticipation of a legislative session. The idea regarding the state board was never forwarded to Pence or advanced as an official proposal, Baker said. Kara Brooks, Pence’s spokeswoman, said the governor never supported any legislation to strip Ritz’s powers, which he told her when they met last week. “He squashed the idea immediately,” Brooks said. “He rejected the idea.” Pence created CECI in August by executive order, funding it in part with money previously under Ritz’s authority that was redirected by the legislature. CECI established a separate staff for the state board, which has battled with Ritz over the board’s rules and the direction of state education policy. The struggle for control intensified in October when all the board members except Ritz wrote a letter to Republican legislative leaders asking them to have the Legislative Service Agency calculate A to F school grades, which they felt Ritz was moving too slowly to release. In response, Ritz sued the board, claiming it violated state transparency laws by meeting via email instead of in person. That suit was later dismissed and the state’s public access counselor determined no violation occurred.

Ritz’s spokesman, David Galvin, said the email to Fiddian-Green that proposed to remove Ritz as chair was discovered by IDOE staff while searching for evidence that the board held a secret meeting in preparation for the lawsuit.

Ritz is the only Democrat holding statewide office. The other 10 state board members were appointed by Republican governors. Tensions boiled over at the last board meeting on Nov. 13 when Ritz suddenly ended the meeting rather than allow a vote on a motion she deemed “improper.” Today’s meeting was supposed to help the board sort out rules about how their meetings are operated and their agendas created. But it got off to a bumpy start, with state board members complaining that Ritz failed to provide public notice of the meeting. As a result, the meeting was an informal “orientation” session, meaning the board could not deliberate but could only hear presentations. Board member Tony Walker said Ritz intentionally “thwarted the effort to discuss the issues we were supposed to discuss.” But Ritz countered that she and Pence agreed during last week’s meeting that the meeting would be informal. Her spokesman argued there was not enough time to post a formal agenda for five days, as the state board’s rules require, after last week’s meeting because of the Thanksgiving holiday. The session was led by Chris Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. During the meeting, much of Admudson’s advice seemed to support the positions of state board members over Ritz. For example, she said every board meeting should begin with a call for new agenda items board members might wish to add. Ritz has declined to add some board member proposed items to the state board’s agenda, saying they came too late. Admudson also said board members should be allowed to ask their attorney questions during the meeting — Ritz has denied such requests at times — and agreed that board members should be allowed to overrule the chairwoman by a vote. The board tentatively has planned its next meeting for Dec. 20 to approve A to F school grades.