Commentary and Opinion

MORRIS: Another call for an appointed schools chief

July 26, 2014

MorrisIt’s been about eight months since I wrote a column with the headline “Ritz should be last elected schools chief.” At that time, Glenda Ritz’s disruptive and obstructionist behavior was on full display. She was suing the board of education, she abruptly ended a board of education meeting by walking out, and she was accusing Gov. Mike Pence of trying for a complete takeover of education.

Here are some recent headlines in the past few weeks:

Fighting resumes between Ritz, Pence appointees

Ritz battles education board over waiver rules

Glenda Ritz creates chaos on State Board of Education. (This was a guest commentary written by a fellow Democrat and member of the education board.)

Yada, yada, yada—SSDD (same stuff, different day), or some other iteration of that descriptor. The madness has to stop.

Count Chris Cotterill, a local attorney and former chief of staff to Mayor Greg Ballard, among those calling for a change. Cotterill writes for INforefront, an online community hosted by Indianapolis Business Journal featuring thoughtful conversation about politics, policy and government. (A few edited excerpts from IndianaForefront.com are highlighted elsewhere on this editorial page, as they are the last issue of every month.)

I believe Cotterill makes a good case for making superintendent of public instruction an appointed position, so I’m featuring his recent online post in its entirety this week.

Time to appoint superintendent of public instruction

cotterill-chris2014 Cotterill

How many times do we need to read of the problems between the Board of Education and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction before we make the obvious change to put an end to it?

That change: Amend state law to make the position appointed by the governor.

IBJ reports the superintendent saying that the board’s most recent efforts “question my integrity, my honesty, [and] my department’s capacity to do the work … .”  It’s a normal, human reaction to take things personally. (And, it can be good politics to be the victim.)

But, I don’t think this is personal.

Nor is politics the cause of the recent problems between the board and the superintendent. Politics certainly exacerbates the tensions and brings them into the media. The friction between the board and the superintendent exists regardless of who holds the offices of governor or superintendent.

It’s always been there to some extent. We just don’t always see it because Republicans and Democrats alike resolve most problems with members of their own party without public attention.

Politics and personal attacks are available excuses, but not the cause. State law authorizes the governor to lead on education through his or her appointments to the board of education, but also empowers an elected superintendent with important aspects of implementation. It has been that way since at least 1984. Like it or not, the fact is governors have long been very involved in education, as they should be.

The State Chamber of Commerce has supported this reform for more than 20 years. In 2001, multiple reports recommended eliminating the position then held by Republican Superintendent Sue Ellen Reed in favor of an appointment by then-Democrat Gov. Frank O’Bannon. More recently, deeply respected education leader David Harris, former director of charter schools under Mayor Bart Peterson and now Mind Trust CEO, has laid out a strong case for this reform.

The Indy Chamber has long supported this reform, but the feeling is shared north and south of our state capital. Just as I was finishing up this post, I found that Evansville’s Courier & Press concluded “it should be the governor—be it Republican or Democrat—who should be appointing a superintendent, and thereby avoiding all of this bickering that interferes with the serious business of education.” Fort Wayne’s News-Sentinel has called for this reform as well.

Should the General Assembly transform the position into a position appointed by the governor? Yes. Should that have been done when Superintendent Tony Bennett was in office. Yes. Should that have been done when Superintendent Reed was in office? Yes. It probably should have been done in 1972 when our station constitution was amended to allow for it.

Let’s change the law in the next legislative session to make the position appointed by the governor at the end of the superintendent’s current term of office and get back to the full-time responsibility of educating Indiana.•

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Morris is publisher of IBJ. His column appears every other week. To comment on this column, send e-mail to gmorris@ibj.com.

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