Ritz: Power grab outlined in Pence document

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Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, released an internal document Wednesday that she says is evidence a new agency created by Republican Gov. Mike Pence is trying to undermine her.

The document, a nine-point policy proposal from the Pence-created Center for Education and Career Innovation, includes a recommendation on how to strip Ritz's powers as chair of the State Board of Education while avoiding "substantial political fallout." Ritz's control of the State Board of Education has become a flashpoint in the ongoing education battles.

"Revising the statute doesn't accomplish anything 'legally,' as the Chair's powers are actually not defined in a statute (but in the shared governance procedures) and may have substantial political fallout. An alternative solution may be to revise the shared governance procedure to make it clear that the Chair cannot reject agenda items or motions made by board members," according to the CECI memo, titled "2013 Education Policy Document."

The document, which was included in an Oct. 3 email sent between two Pence education staffers, seems to confirm Ritz's fears that she was being targeted by the governor's new education agency. But a spokeswoman for Pence said the governor immediately dismissed the idea when it was first brought up in October and reiterated that it would not be a problem in a private meeting with Ritz last week.

"The governor squashed this. They had a meeting last week, and this was discussed and he said he had no intention to include this item in the legislative agenda," said Kara Brooks, a Pence spokeswoman. Brooks also accused Ritz of playing political games by releasing the document now, while board members are working through a string of problems.

Ritz spokesman David Galvin said the superintendent is not worried that Pence will move to strip her power but expects a board member will offer a "surprise motion" gutting her hold on the board.

"That's why she refuses to take motions from the floor: because of the knowledge she has," he said, referring to the document. Galvin noted previous measures shifting power from Ritz to Pence already have been offered without public notice, including one from board member Dan Elsener that moved operation of the board from Ritz to Pence's new education adviser.

That shift, moving the staffing of the board to Pence while leaving the nominal control of the board with Ritz, has led to increasingly tense state board meetings. Ritz's office and the Pence staffers will occasionally draw up separate, competing agendas for board meetings. And lawyers for the opposing sides occasionally elbow each other for room at the lectern to deliver conflicting legal advice.

Tensions have been running high between Ritz and Pence, who oppose one another on a majority of education issues while overseeing the competing education agencies. Ritz sued the other members of the board in October, alleging they violated the state's open meetings law by going behind her back regarding calculation of the state's school grades.

Ritz stormed out of a board meeting last month after a board member floated a measure he said was aimed at handling college and career preparation standards but that she said would shift more power from her office to Pence's new agency.

A national mediator — Kris Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education — was called in for Wednesday's meeting of the Board of Education. But Ritz and other members continued to snipe at each other and the release of the Pence policy document appeared to put a damper on any progress.

At the core is an ongoing struggle between supporters of traditional public education, represented by Ritz, a former teachers union president, and supporters of the many education changes pushed by former Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett and former Gov. Mitch Daniels. Board members, appointed by either Pence or Daniels, have complained extensively that Ritz rules the board agenda with an iron fist and refuses to allow their proposals to come up for consideration.

Tony Walker, a Democrat and Daniels appointee, said Ritz has used an expansive definition of her role as chairwoman to "hijack" board meetings. Walker said he believes a change in control should happen but opposes the Pence agency's idea it be left to the governor. Instead, the board members should elect their own chairman, he said.

He also said the timing of released document would do little to improve relations with the other board members.

"We leave the makeup meeting for her to go drop the email bomb. We hadn't even gotten out of the room before share started the fight again," he said.

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