Legislative leaders say they remain frustrated at the “dysfunctional” relationship among state education officials and will step in if the sides can’t resolve their differences – soon.
On the eve the legislature’s Organization Day for the 2015 session, House Speaker Brian Bosma said he’s concerned enough that he’s thinking about whether to pursue legislation to make the state superintendent of public instruction an appointed rather than elected position.
He acknowledged that would create a “firestorm of protests” because the current superintendent, Glenda Ritz, is a Democrat while Republicans have supermajorities in the House and Senate. But Bosma said the fighting between Ritz and the rest of the State Board of Education – all appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Pence – is unacceptable.
“This has to stop one way or another,” Bosma said. “We can’t let this go on.”
Bosma made his comments at an Indiana Chamber of Commerce legislative preview that featured a panel discussion among Republican and Democratic leaders of the General Assembly.
Chamber President Kevin Brinegar also outlined the group’s legislative priorities. On the list is eliminating the superintendent as an elected position and making it a job appointed by the governor. It’s something the chamber – and leaders in both political parties – have supported at different times in the past. But the issue has come to the forefront as Ritz, who chairs the state board, and members have battled over big issues including A-F grades for schools and small things like how to run a meeting.
“I would encourage – in fact challenge – each and every one of you to watch just one meeting of the State Board of Education and you will see how incredibly dysfunctional it is and how poorly it is serving the children and their parents of the state of Indiana,” Brinegar told chamber members who attended the panel discussion.
But Democratic leaders warned that Hoosiers won’t want to give up electing a superintendent.
“This is a person we trust who knows about education and whose sole duty is to do what’s best for education and children in our state,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “I think that’s what people want.”
Short of eliminating the election of a superintendent, Brinegar said, the legislature should change state law so that the board picks its own chairman, rather than giving the job automatically to Ritz, who two years ago became the first Democrat to hold the office since 1971.
Since then, she’s accused Republicans of trying to undermine her authority. And Pence has even created a separate education agency that has taken over some duties from Ritz’s education department. That new agency now staffs the State Board of Education.
Legislative leaders say both sides are to blame for the morass. One year ago, at the same chamber event, Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, were issuing similar ultimatums, promising they would step in if education leaders didn’t work out their differences. That was shortly after Ritz sued state board members, accusing them of meeting illegally without her knowledge.
Long said the relationships may have gotten a little better since then – but not much. “I’m frustrated we’re even having to discuss it right now,” he said vehemently after Monday’s event.
He said legislative intervention may be like “throwing gasoline on the fire” but he said lawmakers won’t be afraid to step in referee if necessary. He and Bosma emphasized on Monday that lawmakers are charged with setting education policy for the state – not the superintendent and not the governor.
“We may have to dictate how the board meetings are going to run,” Long said. “It needs to change on both sides for the betterment of our kids.”
Meanwhile, the General Assembly will convene its 2015 session with a one-day meeting on Tuesday. Organization Day is largely ceremonial and lawmakers will adjourn after formally electing their leaders until January. The House is scheduled to convene at 1 p.m. and the Senate at 1:30 p.m.