News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

November 17, 2013

EDITORIAL: A dysfunction produced by one-party dominance

What choices does a lone Dem really have?

TERRE HAUTE — The emergence of two-party government in the last decade has been healthy for Vigo County.

Republicans in the high-profile offices of Terre Haute mayor and county prosecutor function alongside Democrat-led city and county councils and commissions. They co-exist, deal with disagreements and provide crucial checks and balances of each other’s power. That’s a good situation.

By contrast, the ugly byproduct of single-party dominance at the state government level in Indiana is now on full, unsettling display for Hoosiers to witness. It disguises itself as an ongoing territorial conflict between Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and members of the State Board of Education. Instead, this soap-opera-style feud boils down to the ill effects of power.

In this case, Republicans possess so much power they feel no pressure to allow the lone Democrat elected to a statewide office, Ritz, to make decisions or pursue policies contrary to their agenda. Since she took office in January after defeating Republican school-reform stalwart Tony Bennett in the 2012 election, Bennett’s party and supporters have circumvented, ignored and undermined her — because they can. Republicans hold super-majorities in the Indiana Senate and House, as well as the governor’s office. The only checks and balances they face within the system must come from a small band of Democratic legislators or Republicans’ own consciences.

The paper-thin nature of that wall of correction became apparent Wednesday in Indianapolis as the Board of Education met, with Ritz serving as its chair.

Exasperated, Ritz abruptly adjourned the meeting after a member, appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Pence, tried to transfer certain student-assessment powers from her Department of Education office to essentially another state education department — the Center for Education and Career Innovation, created by Pence’s executive order in August. Ritz decided the motion was “improper,” refused to allow the board to vote on it, and said she would seek an opinion from the state attorney general, also a Republican. As board members objected and questioned her authority, she declared the meeting adjourned.

Some board members pushed for a vote anyway, after Ritz left, but they eventually heeded advice to put it off.

Ironically, Ritz and the board had settled a seemingly more contentious issue — a revised A-to-F school accountability format — earlier in the meeting. That action represented normal, healthy compromise. The later motion, which blew up the meeting, amounted to another subtle chip in Ritz’s authority.

In response to Ritz’s accusation that Pence was conducting a “complete takeover” of education policy, the governor stated he has worked “in good faith” with her. An objective observer could legitimately view that level of cooperation differently than Pence.

Obviously, Ritz has complicated the situation by growing combative as the friction has escalated this fall. Surrounded and out-numbered, with no high-placed allies, her defensiveness is understandable. Her detractors insist Ritz drags her feet and that they’re just pushing to get things done. Board of Education members — some of whom are Democrats, but all are appointees of Pence or fellow Republican former Gov. Mitch Daniels — interrupt her at meetings, and she’ll often refuse to recognize their comments. The final minutes of Wednesday’s meeting (available for viewing online at media.doe.in.gov/sbe/2013-11-13.htmi) reveal the dysfunction.

Board member Andrea Neal, quoted in the Lafayette Journal and Courier, said, “The breakdown of trust is serious. We need some kind of reconciliation process to move forward.” Excellent point.

On Friday afternoon, Pence notified Ritz and the Board of Ed members that the National Association of State Boards of Education had agreed to mediate and clarify their roles, at the governor’s request. Pence urged Ritz and the board to take up the offer. Is this gesture worthwhile?

Perhaps, but the real question is, who will sincerely pursue reconciliation?

Given the imbalance of power, Ritz is the only one compelled to try.

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