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November 8, 2012

Valley school officials rejoice in defeat of incumbent schools chief Tony Bennett

TERRE HAUTE — Public school educators are excited, and they just can’t hide it, as they talk about Glenda Ritz’s election victory in the race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Some Wabash Valley superintendents say they hope it points to a new era in which their voices will be heard when major educational reforms are proposed.

Ritz, a Democrat, defeated incumbent Republican Tony Bennett, who has spearheaded massive education overhaul including private school vouchers, expansion of charter schools and revamped teacher evaluations.

Dan Tanoos, Vigo County School Corp. superintendent, said his phone began ringing nonstop Tuesday night as Ritz began catching up to Bennett and then took the lead in the state race.

Callers “were ecstatic,” said Tanoos, who received a congratulatory balloon from a Terre Haute resident also elated by Ritz’s victory.

“I think it’s a great day for students and staff of all public schools in Indiana,” Tanoos said Wednesday. “It’s pretty evident she had a lot of support from both parties.”

The vote showed “how dissatisfied people are with Tony Bennett,” Tanoos said. In his opinion, voters also were stating that Bennett’s education overhaul “was the wrong path to be taking.”

He anticipates Ritz “will reach out to a lot of entities, regardless of their party affiliation, and look at discussing how we can move schools back in the right direction.”

While the Indiana house and senate both have Republican super-majorities, and Republican Mike Pence will be the new governor, Tanoos hopes they will work collaboratively with the new, Democrat state superintendent.

He believes Ritz will “open communication with all entities dealing with public schools, rather than just a select few.”

Bennett has had a “negative approach” to public education, in which teachers were not treated as professionals, Tanoos said. That, in turn, hurt morale. “When you have unhappy workers, or workers under constant stress and pressure, they won’t perform at optimal levels,” Tanoos said.

Kim Tucker, Clay Community Schools superintendent, also believes Ritz’s election means educators will have more of a voice in important decisions that affect them.

Ritz will represent and advocate for public schools, teachers and administrators at the local level, Tucker said. That will mean “more of an opportunity for open dialogue with the DOE … and that can only benefit our students.”

Tucker said she’s received several emails. “I would have to say that probably the majority, if not the totality of my instructional staff, is pleased with the outcome” of the state superintendent race, she said.

As for educational reforms put into place in recent years, Tucker believes legislators’ intent has been to help schools advance student achievement.

But she doesn’t believe there was sufficient dialogue with superintendents and teachers to help shape some of those reforms, including teacher evaluations and changes in the compensation model.

“We’re subjected to the outcomes of these legislative changes, but a lot of those outcomes were not given a lot of thought going down the road,” Tucker said. “Now we have to try to work our way through these reforms.”

Dave Chapman, South Vermillion schools superintendent, said Indiana public schools “have been browbeat for so long, it’s had a negative impact on us. This election will hopefully turn that around a little.”

He views Ritz as “an educator advocate” who will have “a different attitude and approach.”

Chapman believes Ritz wants to slow down the pace of change to allow more discussion and forethought before reforms are implemented. At the same time, with Republicans controlling the legislature and governor’s office, he’s not sure she’ll be able to make significant change right away.

Public school teachers also see Ritz’s election victory as a step in the right direction.

John Bitzegaio, a veteran teacher at Lost Creek Elementary, said he and just about all of his peers “are delighted. We think Dr. Bennett has been nothing but bad news for education.”

He believes most of Bennett’s reforms have damaged rather than helped public education.

Those reforms also have taken away most of the teachers’ collective bargaining authority, and now, “teachers have little or no voice in the workplace,” said Bitzegaio, who served as president of the Vigo County Teachers Association several years ago.

Voters sent a message to the Republican legislature and governor, and he hopes “maybe they’ll be more willing to listen … but they don’t have to listen,” Bitzegaio said.

Melanie Beaver, a teacher at West Vigo Middle School, said that with Ritz as state superintendent, “we’ll have a leader who understands our students are more than a test score.”

While some say it’s not a good time to be a teacher, she disagrees.

“It’s a great time to be a teacher. We’ve never been so spirited, enraged and passionate about what we do,” Beaver said. Adversity “has brought this out, and I think it’s made us stronger.”

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com

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