Ritz: Board of Education took action "in secret"

Glenda Ritz
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Indiana's attorney general has filed a motion to dismiss Glenda Ritz's lawsuit against the state's Board of Education. Greg Zoeller says only his office can file lawsuits for the state.

Zoeller said Thursday his office must represent Superintendent Glenda Ritz in any lawsuit and he wants an out-of-court resolution. He also said he won't take sides in the fight.

Ritz alleged in a lawsuit filed earlier this week that ten members of the state board violated Indiana's open meetings law when they removed calculation of school grades from her Department of Education.   

"While I respect the commitment and expertise of members of the board individually they have collectively over-stepped their bounds," she said during a Thursday news conference in front of her Statehouse office.

The board members wrote in a letter last week that Ritz was dragging her feet in compiling the school grades. But Ritz's staff have said they do not have the data yet to issue the grades.

Ritz, the state's superintendent of public instruction, filed the suit earlier this week in a power struggle that has become public over the past few months. On Thursday, she spoke to reporters about her claim that the board violated Indiana's Open Doors law.

"I believe that these members took official action outside of a public meeting, in secret, without any notice to the public, or even to myself," Ritz said.

Democrat Gordon Hendry, the newest member of the Board of Education, disagrees. 

"This action the superintendent and the Department took was unauthorized and in addition there is no basis for the lawsuit," he said shortly after Ritz announced her intention to take her fight to the courts. 

"I am aware that he did file a motion to strike today and has asked for a hearing.  This afternoon we will file our objection to the strike and we look forward to that hearing," she said.

Ritz maintains that board members sent a letter to Republican legislative leaders "asking that LSA take over A-F grading was done without public notice, approval or even public opportunity to comment. I have always believed that fair, open and transparent decision-making is best and it is disappointing to learn that the Board took action in a different manner."

See the motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Marian University President Daniel Elsener also serves as Treasurer for the State Board of Education. 

"I have served on the board for eight years and I've just got to tell you, something has happened the last six to seven months.  I have never received the kind of vociferous, angry, politically charged kind of feedback so there is something wrong right now and we need to get rid of that," he observed during an afternoon interview at his campus office.

At issue is the state's system for grading students and their schools. The state's standardized ISTEP exam was plagued by technical glitches earlier this year, affecting tens of thousands of students. Ritz says over 55,000 re-scores were requested statewide due to those problems, and those are still being re-scored by hand. That data is expected on November 5.

"Because Indiana has such a high-stakes testing system, one changed score can affect not just a student or school, but multiple schools. My administration has consistently provided this needed data to schools and will continue to do so openly and as fast as possible," said Ritz. "When I was sworn in to office, I took an oath to uphold the laws of the State of Indiana. I take this oath very seriously and I was dismayed to learn that other members of the State Board have not complied with the requirements of the law. While I respect the commitment and expertise of members of the board individually, they have collectively over-stepped their bounds."

Governor Mike Pence sees it differently. 

"Our schools are anxiously awaiting the results of A-F grades.  Our parents deserve to know how their schools are performing and teacher pay raises in many jurisdictions in Indiana are dependent on the performance of their schools.  So we are holding up teacher pay raises and we are holding back giving parents the kind of information they need to make the right choices for kids in education," he said during a morning interview in his office.  

The governor added, "Last year this was all done by Halloween and Halloween is next week.  On behalf of teachers waiting for pay raises and on behalf of parents who deserve to know how schools are performing I strong support the efforts of the State Board of Education in moving this forward."

Ritz says she's working with the attorney general to reach a resolution with the board, saying she appreciates Zoeller's involvement, but "while I welcome the opportunity to reach resolution, I believe that the Board's action violated Indiana law and that this case is important. In the event that out of court resolution is not possible, the courts may be the Department's only recourse." 