How did a seemingly simple procedural change, one that Indiana State Board of Education members and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz unanimously favored, become a half-hour debate and result in a split vote on Wednesday?
For regulars at state board meetings, these sorts of puzzlingly contentious moments may be among the few board actions that seem routine.
The real issue in this case was not so much about the question before the board — a proposal to expand public comment at its meetings — but more like another round in the battle among Indiana State Board of Education members and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz over whether she had adhered to the board’s rules.
Disagreements over meeting rules have been a recurring theme for the board, usually accompanying new cracks in the fault lines of hard feelings about how Ritz has managed her role as chairwoman, and how its members have behaved, going back months.
This time, board member Andrea Neal’s suggestion to allow those who come to board meetings to speak on any topic sparked the skirmish.
Though nearly every member of the board said they liked the idea, Neal’s motion only passed 7-3.
Here’s how they got there.
Neal had recently expressed surprise and dismay to find the rules limited speakers to talking only about items on the board’s agenda. In response, Ritz named a committee to develop a recommendation.
And that’s where the trouble began.
Board member Gordon Hendry said he wished to attend the committee meeting but was upset that Ritz sent him notice too late to allow him to plan for it. The meeting was held early Wednesday, before the 9 a.m. state board meeting. Also unable to attend the meeting were state board staff members.
Hendry called for delaying the vote until a future meeting to allow more discussion and was backed by board member Brad Oliver, along with David Freitas and Dan Elsener who were participating by phone.
“The board members on the phone haven’t even seen current proposal,” Hendry complained.
Oliver then cited the board’s own rules that require public notice five days in advance.
The state board has had regular battles over its rules since 2013, and disputes with Ritz as to whether she has faithfully followed them. Those tensions culminated in an explosive November meeting that ended when Ritz abruptly declared they were adjourned.
Since then, changes to the board rules have been intended to mend fences and guard against any future clashes. New procedures that have been added since November have made it easier for board members to place items on the agenda and to make motions during board meetings.
When it comes to scheduling meetings, however, Ritz said Wednesday the 11 board members’ many work and personal commitments make it difficult for her to always find times that work for everyone.
“I have other duties than my state board duties,” she said. “I am an elected official. I am swamped in my superintendent duties.”
But Oliver and others argued that the meeting notice is a responsibility that isn’t optional. Not just the board members had this concern. After the meeting, a newspaper reporter in attendance made formal complaints to the Indiana Department of Education and the state board for failing to provide public notice of the committee meeting.
Ritz tried to guide the discussion back to Neal’s motion.
“It’s a simple matter of an up or down vote,” Ritz said, urging the board to vote.
An exasperated Neal agreed.
“This is a question of expanding public comment,” she said.
The new rules passed despite no votes from Oliver, Freitas and Elsner.
Oliver and B.J. Watts said they agreed with Hendry, but voted yes because they supported expanding the comment rules.
In the end, Hendry also voted yes, citing the same reason.
The board’s next scheduled meeting is July 9, but Ritz said she would be reaching out about dates and times for a second June meeting soon.
For other stories from a busy state board meeting Wednesday see:
- Indiana’s dilemma: Should state test scores count next year?
- State accepts Ferebee’s plan for one schools, rejects ideas for two others
- Indianapolis among finalists for state preschool pilot