With re-election off the table, Indiana schools chief Jennifer McCormick also backs away from leading state board

Days after she announced she wouldn’t pursue a second term as Indiana’s schools chief, Jennifer McCormick dropped another bombshell: She no longer wants to be the leader of the state’s education policy-making body.

McCormick told fellow Indiana State Board of Education members on Wednesday that she is not interested in being board chairwoman when members vote again in January. She was elected to the role by board members for the second time earlier this year. McCormick will remain a board member, which is required under state law.

“I will be stepping away from the chair when that time comes, probably in January,” McCormick said. “So that just gives the time for the board to think about it and handle it much better than it was handled last time.”

After her announcement, just one board member offered any comments. Gordon Hendry said he’s been proud to work with McCormick, and he appreciates the difficulties she’s faced as schools chief.

“It’s not an easy job heading up the department of education,” Hendry said, noting that he and McCormick frequently voted together “even though we’re on different sides of the aisle politically.”

McCormick’s decision to not seek out the chair position, a move that is unprecedented in recent Indiana education policy history, comes two days after she said she wouldn’t seek re-election as state schools chief in 2020. McCormick, a Republican and former public school educator, said political squabbles were distracting her from the important work of educating Indiana’s students and said she would “still serve students for the rest of my life, but it may not be in this role.”

Such infighting likely led to McCormick’s announcement on Wednesday as well. Though she campaigned as a more collaborative leader than her predecessor, Democrat Glenda Ritz, McCormick has butted heads with fellow Republicans as often as she’s agreed with them in the first half of her term.

Read: She’s no Tony Bennett or Glenda Ritz — Jennifer McCormick is charting her own course as Indiana’s schools chief

In fact, the former Yorktown schools superintendent made direct references to those moments in her out-of-the-blue announcement Monday, where she also detailed plans for the second half of her term.

Some of those disagreements are over policy — she frequently votes with a minority of board members who tend to include current or recently retired educators. During her first year, her budget asks were lock-step with Gov. Eric Holcomb, but since then, she’s strayed from party positions on issues like accountability for charter and private schools and A-F grades.

But some are political battles that represent a larger tension between the state’s competing state board and education department, a feud that dates back to 2013 when then-Gov. Mike Pence split the entities in an effort to quell Ritz’s influence and power.

Still, the board has voted to pick McCormick as its leader twice. Lawmakers approved a bill in 2015 to overhaul several aspects of the board, including letting it choose its own leadership from among its members. At the time, Pence said the change would allow the board to work more efficiently and smoothly, referring to near-constant clashes at board meetings between Ritz and board Republicans and Democrats alike.

It’s not yet clear who might seek out the chair position. Currently, the vice-chairman is B.J. Watts, an educator from southern Indiana. The state board is expected to elect new leadership from among its members early next year.

Ultimately, McCormick said, she wasn’t worried about what this decision would mean for her work on state education policy.

“The position of chair, as structured by state leaders prior to my time in office, is irrelevant to policy outcomes,” she said in a statement. “My time and attention are better utilized without this unnecessary distraction.”