News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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October 23, 2013

Ritz files suit against state board

Says state law was violated in drafting of secret letter

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana schools chief Glenda Ritz says the State Board of Education violated state law by secretly drafting a letter to top lawmakers asking them to have legislative analysts calculate A-to-F grades for schools instead of having her department make those calculations.

A lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that 10 members of the board violated the Open Door Law last week when they asked Senate President Pro Tempore David Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma to have the Legislative Services Agency calculate the grades for 2012-2013. Both signed off on the request Friday.

The release of the grades has been delayed amid an overhaul of the formula, which figured prominently in a grade-changing scandal involving former state schools chief Tony Bennett.

Bennett resigned as Florida’s schools chief in August after The Associated Press reported he had overhauled Indiana’s grading formula when he discovered that a charter school founded by a top Republican donor received a low grade. That school, which Bennett routinely cited as a top-performer, received an A under the revised formula. Other schools also saw improvements.

The lawsuit also illustrates growing tensions between Republicans and Ritz, the lone Democrat holding a statewide office in Indiana. Since Ritz defeated Bennett last November, lawmakers have considered diluting her power, a Bennett ally on the board has taken control of long-term planning for the group, and Gov. Mike Pence created a second education agency charged with shaping education policy along with job-training initiatives.

Ritz chairs the State Board of Education, but all its members were appointed by Pence or former Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate blasted the state board’s move in a statement Tuesday.

“Instead of working with the department, the Pence-appointed Board of Education has prodded Republican legislative leadership to subvert the process, and in doing so, unashamedly trampled state law and politicized the traditionally non-partisan Legislative Services Agency,” Sen. Tim Lanane and Rep. Scott Pelath said.

Ritz said the members “over-stepped their bounds” and ignored state law requiring public notice for the meeting in which the letter was drafted.

“I do not take this action lightly, but my obligations as elected state superintendent require it,” she said in a statement.

Christy Denault, a spokeswoman for Pence, said the governor supported the state board’s actions and is “confident that all relevant Indiana laws were followed.”

Republican leaders have been frustrated with the slow release of the grades. The rankings are based largely on ISTEP+ scores, which were delayed after computer issues knocked thousands of students offline during the test this spring.

Ritz spokesman David Galvin says the review of the Bennett grade-change scandal further pushed until November the timeline for releasing grades.

The Department of Education says no data will be available to share with the Legislative Services Agency until Nov. 5, the deadline for rescoring disputed tests.

Bosma and Long told The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne on Monday that preliminary rankings could be calculated and then tweaked after the rescores are decided. Long said teacher evaluations and raises are being held up because of the delay.

State Board of Education member Cari Whicker said she doesn’t want to strip Ritz of her authority to run the calculations.

“The big concern is we are statutorily obligated to give out A-to-F grades, so we feel this sense of responsibility,” Whicker said.

 

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