State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, whose first high profile political battle was a lawsuit charging the Indiana State Board of Education was blocking public access, is facing questions about her own commitment to open government.
In the past year, Ritz has faced three complaints or inquiries from journalists and others that forced changes in practices at the Indiana Department of Education or brought cautions from Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, including twice this summer.
The most recent was an “informal inquiry” from WFYI Public Media’s education reporter, Eric Weddle. An inquiry is a request for help from Britt that does not constitute a formal complaint.
Weddle raised concerns about the education department’s failure to provide meeting locations and agendas for a state advisory council on the education of children with disabilities. The information would be provided, the council’s website said, if an email was sent requesting it.
But Weddle’s two email requests went unanswered for nearly a month, he said.
Weddle said he thought about how hard it would be for parents of disabled children or community members who cared about the issue to get information about the committee’s meetings if a professional reporter was having so much trouble.
“That just seems like a lot of hoops to jump through for, say, a parent who is already trying to navigate the special education world for their kid,” he said. “I emailed twice for meeting information and got no response. I doubt many parents or members of the the public would keep trying after that.”
But Ritz’s communications director, David Galvin, said the department has a good track record when it comes to providing public access.
“Our small staff has done a good job,” he said. “The superintendent’s office is known to be one of the more transparent offices. I think the superintendent is quite happy with the way we support and distribute information.”
In his July 17 opinion on the case, Britt said the education department conceded it had failed to respond to Weddle, citing a problem with the email system and blaming a change in the committee chair for creating a confusion about when the group would meet. Britt urged the department to publish agendas online.
In a separate case Britt ruled on last month, Rod Gardin of Kouts, near Valparaiso, complained about the department’s slow response to his request for copies of any testing concerns or security violations reports for the 2015 ISTEP test.
Britt sided with the department on technical questions of whether its initial response was quick enough and was sympathetic to education officials’ argument that the request required a time consuming extra effort. But Britt also said nearly 90 days to fill Gardin’s request was a long delay.
Timeliness was also the basis for a complaint by Abdul-Hakim Shabazz filed last September, but in his case it took the education department more than a year to fill his request for copies of emails sent and received by education department staff. Shabazz runs the IndyPolitics.org website and hosts a radio show.
The request was not filled after after Britt ruled the department violated state law.
“A year is way out of the time frame,” Britt said. “The longest I ever said would be OK is six months. And I think even that is pushing the boundaries. Six months is an awfully long time.”
Galvin was less sympathetic to Shabazz, who he described as “a political radio host pundit who is constantly attacking the superintendent.” But he conceded the department perhaps could have done better in the other two cases.
“If a couple have slipped through, we regret that,” Galvin said. “We definitely want to try to turn information around as best we can.”
The public access counselor is an office many states don’t have. Britt’s post is appointed by the governor to assist citizens with problems accessing public meetings or documents, and he rules on questions about whether public offices have broken state open records or open meetings laws. In general, documents and data held by the state and meetings of public boards are required to be open for public inspection or attendance, except for reasons the legislature has specifically spelled out.
Britt does not have the power to enforce his rulings. If public offices still don’t comply with his decisions, those making the complaints must ask a court to intervene.
Three complaints in a year about the education department isn’t extreme, Britt said. The department receives a large volume of request for records and data, he said, which can slow down its response time.
State departments that receive the most access complaints are usually those that deal with criminal defendants and prisoners. The Department of Corrections had 30 complaints or inquiries to Britt’s office, and the state police had nine, Britt said. But the education department had the third most.
“I don’t think it’s systemic,” Britt said. “I think they just have a lot going on, and they’re short staffed. Things fall through the cracks.”
Besides the formal inquiries and complaints, other news organizations have sometimes struggled to get access to information from the education department, including Chalkbeat.
For Chalkbeat’s April series on English language learning in Indiana, its information request for data on the number of children learning English as a new language and other student factors in each Indiana school was never completely filled, even after repeated email, phone and in-person follow-ups over 47 days. While some of the requested data was provided, Chalkbeat eventually obtained the rest through public sources online without the department’s help.
In Chalkbeat’s case, the department also blamed email problems, saying an attachment had failed to come through. But the attachment was never sent after that explanation was given.
Shabazz said he filed his complaint because he was tired of waiting so long, and also because he thought it was hypocritical that Ritz demanded the state board be more open but seemed not to expect the department she leads to do the same.
“Glenda filed a suit against the State Board of Education complaining about openness and transparency, and they can’t even comply with the law in a timely manner themselves,” Shabazz said.
Ritz sued the other 10 members of the board in 2013 after they all signed a letter to lawmakers asking to have a different state agency calculate school A-to-F grades because they thought the education department was moving too slowly.
Ritz’s suit argued that the group decision to author the letter should have been made in public and that the email conversations that led to the letter constituted an illegal private meeting. The suit was dismissed, but a later suit by four citizens resulted in a $15,000 cash settlement from the state board.