Indiana State Board of Education in limbo after legislature's move

Gov. Mike Pence made a bold call in December for big changes he said would “restore harmony” to the contentious Indiana State Board of Education, but did he get what he wanted?

A centerpiece of his plan to refocus the board, which he mostly selected, was to clear the way for a new chair, stripping state Superintendent Glenda Ritz of her guaranteed place in that seat.

He got it — sort of.

But the bigger and more immediate change is not something Pence asked for. And it’s not clear he’s entirely comfortable with it either.

If Pence signs Senate Bill 1, it will bring Indiana to a rare moment that will see 10 appointments to the state board happen all at once, rather than in smaller sets of appointments every two years.

The bill does let the board select someone other than Ritz as its leader as Pence wanted, but that change won’t come until after the 2016 election. So, for now, Ritz remains the chairwoman.

But in less than a month, other changes in the bill could theoretically replace all of the 10 appointed board members. Some will likely return but almost certainly not all of them.

That’s because, this time, Pence won’t get exclusive say as to who they will be.

Senate Bill 1 diminishes Pence’s power to appoint the state board, giving two of the 10 appointments to legislative leaders — House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President David Long. So he loses a not insignificant 20 percent of his appointments to the board.

Pence didn’t exactly praise that change when he met with reporters last week, but he wasn’t critical of the bill either.

“We’re currently reviewing that legislation,” he said. “There were a lot of moving parts late in that bill.”

Even so, he did list it among his legislative agenda items that were accomplished, noting that Indiana would join 48 other states that do not automatically make the state superintendent also the state board chair.

His office declined to say anything more about Senate Bill 1 today except that Pence will decide which bills he will sign before he leaves for China on Saturday.

The state board situation is so unusual, and unfolding so quickly, that even the current members don’t know their fates.

Last week, three of Pence’s appointees — David Freitas, Gordon Hendry and Brad Oliver — made the unusual move of issuing a statement asking to be reappointed.

“There have been significant changes made in education policy in Indiana in recent years that have been challenging at times to work through as a Board. At the end of the day, we’ve crafted and implemented policies that have moved Hoosier schools in the right direction for our kids,” they wrote.

Oliver said today he did not want to comment further until the governor acts.

Of the 10 appointees on the board today, five were chosen by Pence: college professors Freitas, of Indiana University South Bend, and Oliver, of Indiana Weslyean University; Hendry, a former Indianapolis deputy mayor; Henryville High School Principal Troy Albert; and Andrea Neal, a private school teacher and former Indianapolis Star editorial writer.

The other five all were first appointed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels and later reappointed by Pence: Avon teacher Sarah O’Brien; Huntington teacher Cari Whicker; Marian University President Dan Elsener; Gary attorney Tony Walker; and B.J. Watts, a teacher in Evansville.

That group has struggled to work with Ritz over the past two years.

In particular, Elsener, Oliver, Freitas, Hendry and O’Brien have routinely criticized Ritz as a poor leader and the Indiana Department of Education’s work as sometimes sub-par.

Ritz has been deeply critical of Pence and the hired staff that serves the state board, arguing they have worked to purposefully undermine her authority.

The effort to strip Ritz of her role as state board chair prompted a statehouse rally by her supporters earlier this year on the same day the Indiana House passed a bill aimed at limiting her powers.

While she retains her role as chairwoman through 2016, the legislature took other steps last week by passing bills that will reduce what had been her exclusive authority over aspects of A-to-F grading, state testing and student data.

Ritz even said last week she is so frustrated by the changes passed by the legislature and backed by Pence that she is considering challenging him for governor. That decision, she said, would be made by June.

The state board meets this week on Thursday.