Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Indiana State Board of Education members today rekindled their ongoing battle for control of the state’s education policy as the board made several moves to limit her power during meetings and criticize her leadership.

A visibly angry Ritz accused Gov. Mike Pence and his allies of circumventing the will of the voters who elected her and said the state board overstepped its authority.

“The board is assuming powers and implying powers that do not exist,” Ritz said.

In a grueling eight-hour meeting the board voted, despite her objections, to:

  • Task a new committee with rewriting the board’s meeting rules, with instructions for it to consider new limits on Ritz’s controls over the board’s agenda
  • Create a second committee, served by the the Center for Education and Career Innovation rather than the education department, to oversee school turnaround efforts; and
  • Add stipulations to a proposal Ritz made to the U.S. Department of Education

Board members once again blamed Ritz for the board’s dysfunction, even bringing up an explosive November meeting where she abruptly adjourned. Ritz’s supporters, including the state teachers union which started rallying against the resolutions last week, booed board members and urged them during public comment periods to respect Ritz’s authority.

But the majority were unmoved.

“It does nobody any good when our meetings become a media sideshow and for all the wrong reasons,” said board member Gordon Hendry. “I’ve sat on this board for 10 months and at times I’ve felt like I’m sitting on high school student council. The controversy over these changes is really overblown.”

Ritz supporters: Resolutions ‘really bad governance’

About 20 Ritz supporters, dressed in red and holding brightly colored signs, booed board members throughout the meeting as they defended the necessity of several proposed resolutions.

Union representatives and others said they were chiefly concerned with proposed changes in board rules, which could eventually allow board members to change meeting procedures, add agenda items during a meeting, and transfer scheduling duties from Ritz to the board’s staff.

It was the latest development in a months-long argument between board members and Ritz as to whether Ritz can single handedly deny motions and block new agenda items, among other actions.

“What this looks like is when you don’t get your way, you’re going to look at the procedures again and change the rules,” said Gail Zeheralis, an Indiana State Teachers Association lobbyist. “It’s really bad governance.”

Ritz also was aggravated by the board’s wording in a resolution to form a committee to review ongoing and future school turnarounds because the resolution stated it would be staffed by CECI, an agency Ritz has long contended was formed by Gov. Mike Pence to usurp her powers as state superintendent.

Last summer, Pence created CECI by executive order, using new authority given to him by the legislature, and redirected some funds previously controlled by the education department to fund it. CECI employs a staff that assists the state board. Previously those positions were part of the education department.

Board member Brad Oliver said Ritz spent too much time arguing about issues “not central or germane to the overall issue” of school turnaround.

“This is the part of these meetings that I hate,” said board member Andrea Neal when the issue unfolded into an argument.

Board members critical of Ritz’s work

The board and Ritz also debated her authority when it comes to Indiana’s recent response to a U.S. Department of Education demand that it explain how it will keep promises as part of a 2012 agreement. That deal gave Indiana a waiver releasing it from some sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Board members and the public learned the waiver was in jeopardy in May. Losing the waiver could limit how millions in federal aid for poor schools are spent.

Board members passed a resolution critical of the Indiana education department’s thoroughness and accuracy in crafting the waiver.

Ritz said she feels those complaints, along with a “critique” of the waiver submitted to federal officials by the CECI, were unfounded and that could hurt Indiana’s chances of keeping the waiver.

“Submitting a 28-page document asking questions and critiquing a waiver that we were all jointly developing does not send a good message to the (U.S. Department of Education), but it doesn’t surprise me,” Ritz said. “They critique my office daily. It’s part of my routine now because the governor has his own education agency.”
The state said it expects to hear from the federal education department about the waiver by the end of the month.