The Indiana State Board of Education will look very different when it meets next week.
After a contentious tug-of-war between State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and a board that has been mostly critical of her work the past two years, the reshuffle could change the nature of the conversation about education in Indiana. The new board meets next Wednesday at Purdue University.
Five new board members were appointed today, or half of the 10 appointees on the board. The five who were reappointed by Gov. Mike Pence were Sarah O’Brien, David Freitas, Cari Whicker, B.J. Watts and Gordon Hendry.
Dan Elsener, Brad Oliver, Tony Walker and Troy Albert were not reappointed to the board. Ritz holds the 11th seat on the board.
The new board members are:
Steve Yager, a retired superintendent from Southwest Allen County Schools near Fort Wayne. Yager co-chaired last year’s statewide panel that revised the rules for A-to-F school grades. He was appointed by Sen. David Long, R-Fort Wayne, the president of the Indiana Senate.
Byron Ernest, the head of schools for the online charter school network Hoosier Academies. Ernest was Indiana Teacher of the Year in 2010 while at Lebanon High School. He then worked for Charter Schools USA as the principal of Manual High School when the company took over managing the school from Indianapolis Public Schools as part of a state takeover. He was appointed by Rep. Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, the speaker of the Indiana House.
Eddie Melton, community relations manager at Northern Indiana Public Service Company, a gas and electric company. He formerly was vice president of the Gary Chamber of Commerce and once served as executive director of an organization that offers tutoring and mentoring. He was appointed by Pence and previously had been tapped by Pence to serve on the Indiana Commission of the Social Status of Black Males and the Region 1 Work Council. Melton was appointed by Pence.
Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, an assistant superintendent in Warren Township. She formerly worked in the Indiana Department of Education and was the first head of state takeover efforts under then-Superintendent Tony Bennett. She was appointed by Pence.
Vince Bertram, the CEO of Project Lead The Way. His organization is a non-profit that helps schools improve instruction in science, technology, engineering and math. The group moved to Indianapolis after 14 years in upstate New York in 2011. Bertram is the former superintendent in Evansville and also has written a book about STEM education. He was appointed by Pence.
New board members, new dynamic?
The changes remove from the board two of Ritz’s sharpest and most consistent critics in Elsener and Oliver. But others who are returning have also clashed with her at times, notably O’Brien, Freitas and Hendry.
So it may be too early to judge whether Ritz or her remaining board critics gained more from the overhaul.
“I don’t think any of this can be considered a win for anybody,” Hendry said. “There’s going to be a bit of a changing of the guard.”
At least one former board member said he wasn’t terribly sorry to leave the group behind. Tony Walker, a Gary attorney who was not reappointed, said he was “indifferent” when asked if he wanted to stay on the board.
“I was more than willing to call it quits,” Walker said. “Every time you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. I don’t see these issues developing a consensus anytime soon. It was a bag of wishes and dreams.”
But Hendry said he believed the board already had moved past some of its most difficult times, resolving hard issues such as disagreements over the board’s own rules and Ritz’s powers as chairwoman, for example.
“My hope is with some new members there will be different points of view brought to the table and we can kind of hit the reset button and try to get beyond some of these issues that have bogged us down in the past,” he said.
Elsener, who said he asked not to be reappointed after nearly a decade on the board, advised the new board members to set specific goals and objectives and hold Ritz and the education department accountable for achieving them.
He said the board should continue to focus on turning around failing schools, especially in poor communities.
“There’s a matter of social and economic justice when schools aren’t working well,” he said. “We need to have outstanding leadership to push forward and make the tough decisions. I’m very proud of all the work we got done, especially during the Tony Bennett years when we had strong leadership.”
Neal, who also was not reappointed, said she expects the new people will bring noticeable change to the board.
“It’s my sense that the new board combined with the new appointments by the House speaker and the Senate president will be less of a rubber stamp,” Neal said. “And I think that’s a great thing. I hope they all exercise independent judgement on every issue that goes before them.”
A rare moment of big changes
The appointment or reappointment of 10 state board members at once is unusual and resulted from changes to the just-passed Senate Bill 1, which set a June 1 deadline for new appointments. Normally, the board members are named in smaller sets of appointments every two years.
The bill was pushed by Pence and legislative leaders as a way to allow the board to choose someone other than Ritz as chair if it wished. The final version removed the guarantee in state law that the superintendent lead the board, but that change doesn’t happen until 2017.
Changes to Pence’s appointment powers, which he initially opposed but ultimately accepted, were included to the bill. He now appoints eight board members, while Bosma and Long each get one appointment. Previously Pence appointed the 10 board members besides the superintendent.
An overhauled state board will try to move past two contentious years of intense debate and pointed criticism.
State board members have frequently derided Ritz’s leadership of the board and the Indiana Department of Education, arguing that she tried to block efforts to hold schools to high standards and failed at her basic duties, like managing the creation of a new ISTEP test.
But Ritz has directed repeated complaints at Pence, arguing that he has sought to undermine her work through his appointments on the board and the staff they hired. Pence fired back dramatically in February when he blamed Ritz for building an ISTEP test he said was too long and then backed a legislative effort that made changes to cut the exam time by three hours.
What comes next?
Some of the new board members say they are eager to begin working with their colleagues, including Ritz, with an eye toward reducing the discord.
“I would not have accepted this opportunity if I wasn’t interest in working with Superintendent Ritz,” Bertram said. “This is going to require a great deal of collaboration. I look forward to sitting down and finding ways to work together to realize our state’s potential.”
Melton said board members should be able to disagree constructively if they have respect for one another.
“We’re talking about really understanding how we arrived at various decisions, not approaching it in a argumentative or opposing way,” Melton said. “How can we have good civil conversations and debate where we all can vote and make a decision for the children at the end of the day?”
All said they were eager to begin work.
“I like to run toward challenges as opposed to away from them,” Ernest said. “I think it’s so important that we establish sound policy and procedures and practices for all schools in Indiana, all students, all families.”
Several of the newcomers hesitated to weigh in on issues that have divided the board — like the future of ISTEP or whether Ritz’s leadership has improved education in Indiana — in hopes of a fresh start.
Kwiatkowski, for example, said she has not closely followed state board discussions since she attended her last meeting as an education department employee in 2011. From her post in Warren Township, the outcome for schools since then has been hard to judge, she said.
“We’ve had a lot of changes over the last couple of years,” she said. “We’ve had new standards and new assessments. We’ve had different issues with funding. All of those are complex issues for districts. I don’t think it would be fair for me to say are we better or not better.”
Yager said politics will be far from his mind as a state board member.
“I’m about as apolitical as you can possibly get,” Yager said. “So I guess my response to that is if I ever make a political decision as a board member, I’m in the wrong seat. I need to be making decisions that are tied to direct classroom improvement.”