Legal Issues and K-12 and Department of Education and Lawsuits and Education & Workforce Development and Law

UPDATE: Court allows education board lawsuit to proceed

July 29, 2014

A Marion County judge has cleared the way for a lawsuit to proceed against members of the State Board of Education that alleges public access violations.

Marion County Judge Cynthia Ayers denied the state's request that the case be dismissed on questions of whether the plaintiffs had standing.

At issue is whether board members violated Indiana's open meetings laws by circulating a letter seeking changes in who calculates the state's "A-F" school grades. The suit mirrors a challenge state Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz filed last year against board members. A Marion County judge dismissed that challenge on the grounds that Ritz could not file a challenge without the approval of the state attorney general's office.

The attorney general's office has argued that no formal meeting ever occurred and that there was no violation of the state's open meetings laws. But Ayers' order said the law is unclear on the issue of whether conducting business by email counts as a meeting under the law.

"In order for the court to properly determine this issue while liberally construing the provisions of the Open Door Law, a full examination of the facts and circumstances of the events in question is necessary," Ayers wrote.

Democratic lawyer Bill Groth, who filed the suit on behalf of four residents, including a former Merrillville schools superintendent, said Tuesday he is pleased with Ayers' decision.

"We intend to proceed with discovery to find out what we can about the communications that occurred between (Claire) Fiddian-Green and members of the board," he said. "That will be our main focus over the next few weeks."

Fiddian-Green runs the Center for Education and Career Innovation, the alternative education agency that Gov. Mike Pence created last year. She also serves as a staff member for the Board of Education.

Zoeller spokesman Bryan Corbin said his office was reviewing the ruling.

"The Open Door Law is an important protection for Hoosiers," he said. "The state will review the trial court's ruling and determine the next steps to take in court by the appropriate deadlines."

Indiana's public access counselor, who reviews complaints regarding transparency and public records, wrote last year that the board members might not have technically violated the law, but did violate the spirit of the law.

The original lawsuit filed by Ritz last year is one of many events to contribute to the visceral split between Ritz, who chairs the board, and many of the other board members, who have been appointed by Indiana's past two Republican governors. The submission of the state's No Child Left Behind waiver last month reignited fighting among the two sides.

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