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October 24, 2013

Indiana Attorney General Zoeller: Education lawyers can’t represent Ritz in suit

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller stepped into the state’s escalating education battle Thursday, saying that Department of Education lawyers cannot represent state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz in her lawsuit against members of the State Board of Education.

Ritz sued the other 10 members of the state board Tuesday, claiming they “collectively over-stepped their bounds” when they requested the General Assembly’s bill-drafting arm calculate the “A-F” school grades for the 2012-2013 school year. Ritz claims in the suit the board violated Indiana’s open meeting laws when it went behind her to make the request.

But Zoeller spokesman Bryan Corbin called Ritz’s lawsuit “unauthorized and invalid” because the attorney general acts as the lawyer for state officials. Should it move forward, it would put Zoeller’s office in the strange position of being required to represent both sides.

“As the lawyer for state government and the State’s chief legal officer, the Attorney General has sole legal authority to represent state officials and agencies in court or to permit outside counsel to do so,” Corbin said in a statement.

Zoeller’s filing is the latest twist in an increasingly tangled and acrimonious fight over the direction of education in Indiana. Zoeller, a statewide elected official, argues that a separately elected official, Ritz, overstepped by using state lawyers to file the suit. Meanwhile Ritz said Thursday she would consider Zoeller’s offer to mediate her dispute with the members of the very board she chairs.

The other 10 board members, all appointed by Republican governors, argued in an Oct. 16 letter that she has been dragging her feet releasing the school grades. Ritz’s staff has said it will not get the data needed to calculate the grades until Nov. 5 because of delays throughout the year.

Widespread problems with CTB/McGraw-Hill’s administration of the online ISTEP standardized test delayed the release of test scores central to the school grades by months. Meanwhile, the scandal surrounding former School Superintendent Tony Bennett’s decision to alter the grading formula to benefit a donor’s charter school forced legislative leaders to seek a month-long investigation of the formula itself.

The board members’ request to move the grading to the Legislative Service Agency was quickly approved last Friday by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne. Ritz staffers said they did not find out about the request until last Friday.

“Let me be clear, the letter that the members of the Board sent to Republican Legislative Leadership asking that LSA take over A-F grading was done without public notice, approval or even public opportunity to comment,” Ritz said at a news conference Thursday, as she read from a prepared statement outside her Statehouse office.

School board members have said they were caught off guard. Tony Walker, a Gary Democrat and board member, asked the court Wednesday to throw out the lawsuit.

“I am shocked and disappointed that Superintendent Ritz reaffirmed her commitment to pushing a frivolous lawsuit against her colleagues. I hoped that she would be sensitive to the atmosphere of division her action has created,” Walker said in a statement.

Ritz also addressed a video clip of her saying earlier this month that she would welcome LSA help that has been circulated by Republican staffers and former Bennett aides. She said board members went a step further than what she wanted by pushing control of the grading to the legislative agency.

The letter from Bosma and Long directed LSA to “provide the A-F calculations to the board (of education) as soon as possible, so that the board can review them and prepare to issue grades expeditiously.” But Pence aides, who recently took over day-to-day operations of the school board from Ritz, have said they only wanted LSA to calculate grades in addition to Ritz’s Department of Education.

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