Senate OKs bill allowing board to vote for leader

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The Republican-dominated Indiana Senate has advanced a bill that would stop the superintendent of public instruction from automatically chairing the State Board of Education.

Senate members voted 33-17 Tuesday to advance the proposal that would allow board members to elect their own chairman. The move most likely would result in Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, being removed from the position.

Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, now appoints all 10 other board members. The Senate proposal would shrink it to a nine-member board made up of the superintendent, four appointments by the governor and one appointment each for the Republican and Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate.

Supporters say the change is necessary to fix a dysfunctional education board. Opponents say its a political power grab.

Pence told reporters he was "not enthusiastic" about changing the appointment system for the board, but declined to elaborate.

The legislation was prompted by well-known friction between Ritz and Republican board members, who have frequently argued over control of education policy during the past two years.

Bill sponsor Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, said he believed reducing the board's size and allowing it to select its own chairman would help fix what many have referred to as a "dysfunctional education board."

Opponents of the measure said the disputes are caused by Pence appointees who want control over programs on teacher evaluation, private school vouchers and the state takeover of poorly performing schools.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said the bill is a power grab over "high-stakes policy decisions" and Republicans are using the board's conflict as a scapegoat.

"This dysfunction is manufactured," he said. "One person's dysfunction is another person's passionate debate."

Lanane also said reducing an elected position to "its lowest denominator" would undermine the 1.3 million voters who elected Ritz in 2012.

The GOP-controlled House approved a similar bill last week, but the version would not require a restructuring of the board. Lawmakers will have to work out a common version by the end of the legislative session in late April.

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