State board settles open meetings suit, admits no guilt

A lawsuit claiming the Indiana State Board of Education broke the law by holding a private meeting without public notice was settled with the board admitting no guilt.

The board said on Wednesday that it will pay $15,000 to end the months-long dispute over allegations that it broke the state’s open meetings law when board members had discussions over email without including Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

Board member Gordon Hendry called the lawsuit “frivolous.” The complaint was identical to the a different suit last year filed by Ritz that also was dismissed.

Former Lafayette schools superintendent Ed Eiler and three Ritz supporters argued in the suit that the board broke laws that require public board to make decision in open public meetings when members decided through an email conversation to ask legislative leaders to step in and release Indiana school A-F accountability grades because they believed Ritz was taking too long. Ritz, who chairs the board by state law, was traveling out of state and was not included in the email conversation.

“It’s unfortunate that a frivolous lawsuit like this one wasted so much time and energy that would have been better spent focusing on the needs of Indiana’s students,” Hendry said. “The most important thing to take away from this agreement is that no violation of the Open Door law occurred, and this case is permanently laid to rest.”

Eiler and Groth said they decided to abandon the suit because of the time and costs involved with continuing. But because the case was decided without a ruling by Marion County Superior Court Judge Cynthia Ayers the plaintiffs say the question is not resolved.

“The use of emails to conduct the public’s business creates a risk that public officials will engage in private debate and discussion on matters that belong at public meetings subject to public scrutiny,” read a joint statement by Eiler and attorney William Groth. “This is an issue which the General Assembly needs to address next year so that the intent of the Open Door Law—that the official actions of public agencies be conducted transparently so that the public may be fully informed—is not once again compromised.”

The board, which was denied when it first asked Judge Ayers to dismiss this suit, was cleared of wrongdoing in the case. In turn, it will pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees and court costs.

Hendry, a former public access counselor for the City of Indianapolis, called the lawsuit “a ploy to distract from the recent progress our state has made in K-12 education.”

But he said he would welcome a conversation about how to improve transparency in the state.

This story is from Chalkbeat Indiana, a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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