Jennifer McCormick introduced herself and her run for state superintendent of public instruction Thursday by criticizing Glenda Ritz’s management of the Indiana Department of Education and calling for a debate that gets beyond politics.
“We need to strive for excellence,” she said. “We need to quit focusing on political squabbling. If we do that, success will come. It is time to put students before politics. It is time (for) excellence and achievement to be a forethought versus an afterthought.”
McCormick, the superintendent of Yorktown schools in Delaware County, is running as a Republican challenger to Ritz, a Democrat. She said she has not always voted Republican, arguing she viewed the work of superintendent as needing a shift away from political debates.
“The politics have got to be left out of it,” she said. “It’s time to move forward. It’s time to communicate and collaborate and play nice.”
Ritz has been locked in a three-year battle with Gov. Mike Pence and his appointees on the Indiana State Board of Education over the direction of education policy in the state.
Ritz’s campaign spokeswoman, Annie Mansfield, cited Ritz’s accomplishments in her statement responding to McCormick’s announcement.
“We welcome her to the race and look forward to talking about Superintendent Ritz’s record of improving over 100 public schools in her first year, resulting in over 61,000 students no longer attending schools that got a D or an F from the state, as well as fighting to hold students, schools, teachers and communities harmless as we transitioned to newer standards,” she said.
McCormick, however, said she ran in part out of frustration with the poor level of service she and other superintendents have received from the education department under Ritz.
She said, for example, that ISTEP guidance districts normally receive well in advance of the test date said only arrived in December for a test that is given starting in February.
“The last few years have been very difficult,” she said. “Ask your local districts. Indiana was at one point a leader in the nation. Today we are not. Today we have a Department of Education that is disorganized and disconnected from schools.”
McCormick, 46, argued she was a more experienced educator and leader, having worked as a special education teacher, a middle school English teacher, an elementary school principal and a superintendent.
“I know what it takes to be a leader in education,” she said. “I have done it and I will continue to do it. That sets me apart from our current superintendent.”
Married to a high school science teacher in her district, she also has a son who is a high school senior in Yorktown.
Her campaign would be upbeat and positive, McCormick said.
“We preach no bullying to the students and I will practice that,” she said. “I will not run a negative campaign.”
Even so, McCormick announced her run at the Statehouse surrounded by representatives of interest groups that supported Ritz’s predecessor, Tony Bennett, or have been critical of Ritz: Stand For Children, the Institute for Quality Education and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
There were also several former staff members from Bennett’s education department team on hand. McCormick did not mention Bennett, but Bennett cited her work in Yorktown in his final “state of education” address, given just months before he was defeated by Ritz in the 2012 election.
“Yorktown Schools, led by Superintendent Jennifer McCormick and a host of ambitious principals and teachers, have revamped their entire K-12 model based on providing every student a head start on college with a rich selection of Advanced Placement courses,” Bennett said in that speech. “In grade 3, Yorktown students begin an advanced curriculum designed to prepare them for college-level coursework as early as middle school. Yorktown has become one of Indiana’s AP leaders, and their model for college preparation has become an example for forward thinking districts around the state.”
Yorktown schools are good performers. The district ranks high in the state for test scores and graduation rates . It is rated an A by the state. The district has fairly low poverty, with only about a third of students who come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. To qualify, a family of four cannot exceed $44,863 in annual income.
But the district does have financial problems. It is one of a handful around the state that has been handicapped by tax caps.
In 2010, the Indiana legislature sought to make property taxes, which sometimes shifted up or down unexpectedly for homeowners when their home values changed, more steady.
Tax caps were the result: homeowners could not pay more than 1 percent of the total assessed value of their property in property taxes. While this stabilized tax bills, it made funding for some school services that still are paid by property taxes, such as transportation, less stable. When a district hit the maximum amount it can collect in property taxes, money can run short as expenses still grow.
That happened to Yorktown, necessitating cutbacks. One of them was the district librarian.
“The gal retired so we used those funds for some more reading specialists,” she said. “We outsource our librarian services. We keep a pulse on it. We keep an eye on how many books have been checked out and the atmosphere and the climate of the library. It’s worked for us.”
Before she was elected state superintendent, Ritz was working as a school librarian in Washington Township. Ritz is also a National Board certified teacher.