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Ritz meets with Pence; loses on transparency ruling

Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz met for more than an hour this morning to try to resolve their differences over how the Indiana State Board of Education should be run.

Ritz, who lost another round in the battle late Monday when the state public access counselor rejected a complaint that the state board had violated state law by holding a secret meeting, said afterward she had not yet seen the ruling.

She did, however, announce progress in one area. The state board will add a Dec. 20 meeting to allow the board to approve the final A to F school grades so they can be released before the end of the year, Ritz said.

Ritz said both she and Pence had reached out to schedule the meeting and promised a statement later today. A Pence spokeswoman said he did not plan to issue any statement.

Ritz and Pence have been at odds since August, when Pence created the Center for Education and Career Innovation, funded in part by dollars that were redirected by the legislature from the Ritz-run Indiana Department of Education. The center then hired a separate staff to serve the state board of education, which has clashed with Ritz’s department staff over issues such as interpreting state law regarding A to F school grades.

Ritz, the only Democrat in statewide office, chairs the state board but the other 10 members were appointed by Republican governors. Conflict among Ritz and the rest of the board members began to reach its peak last month when the board delivered a letter to Republican legislative leaders asking them to have the Legislative Service Agency calculate A to F grades out of frustration with what they perceived as foot dragging by Ritz.

Ritz, who said testing errors and rescoring caused the delay, responded with a lawsuit claiming the board violated state transparency laws by making a decision outside of a required public meeting. Her suit was dismissed because she failed to consult with the attorney general, who decides when the state initiates lawsuits. But a citizens’ group took her complaint about the state board to the public access counselor, a Pence appointee who considers questions of whether public agencies and boards are following open government laws.

Late Monday, the counselor, Luke Britt, ruled for the state board while also raising alarms that transparency laws might need to be strengthened to prevent members of public boards from making decisions via email. Britt said members of the state board asked its staff to draft the letter via email and then the members signed it, but he could not determine if a majority of the board made the decision or if the request was less formal.

“I cannot state conclusively whether a discussion directing the board’s staff to draft the letter took place behind closed doors,” he said. “To be clear, if a majority of the board directed the staff members to draft a letter, then a violation would have occurred.”

But Britt went on to say that while other states have clarified whether email discussions that lead to decisions constitute a violation of transparency law, Indiana has not done so. He cautioned the board to take care to safeguard against violating the requirement that meetings be held in public.

“Final decisions are meant to be open and transparent,” Britt wrote. “Regardless of intent, the appearance of action taken which is hidden from public view is particularly damaging to the integrity of a public agency and contrary to the purpose of transparency and open access.”

Ritz declined to discuss the ruling, saying she had not yet read it.

Tension between Ritz and the board hit its apex on Nov. 13, when Ritz abruptly ended a board meeting rather than call for a vote on a motion by board member Brad Oliver that she believed could strip her of the power to lead Indiana’s process for setting academic standards.

Ritz has asked Attorney General Greg Zoeller to rule on whether Oliver’s motion was proper but she said today she has not heard back from him. Zoeller’s office has declined to comment on when he might issue a ruling.

The board is next scheduled to meet on Dec. 3 for strategic planning and Dec. 4 for its regular monthly meeting. At the Nov. 13 meeting, Ritz had asked the board to plan a meeting later in the month to allow time for A to F calculations to be finished so the board could approve and release school grades. That meeting, she said, will be on Dec. 20.