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Attorney general’s opinion goes against Ritz; board may call emergency meeting

Attorney General Greg Zoeller office told state Superintendent Glenda Ritz in a letter sent today that she was wrong to declare a motion by Indiana State Board of Education member Brad Oliver invalid on Nov. 13.

With a string of victories in their dispute with Ritz since that Nov. 13 meeting, state board members are now considering calling an emergency meeting to rewrite their rules to try to make their meetings run more efficiently before their next scheduled meeting on Dec. 20, Oliver said.

“I think you’re going to see board members call for that,” he said. “We feel we need to get procedures clarified before we go into another meeting on Dec. 20.”

Among the new rules board members have advocated for include the ability for board members to add items more easily to the agenda, call for votes over the chairwoman’s objections and confer with attorneys during the meeting, Oliver said. Those moves could make it much harder for Ritz to guide board meetings toward her preferred issues and away from the priorities of other board members.

Ritz could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

Zoeller’s opinion addressed a long running debate about Ritz’s control over state board meetings as chairwoman. When board members objected to Ritz’s ruling that Oliver’s motion was improper and demanded to vote on it, Ritz instead declared the meeting over and left.

Oliver, a college professor, had designed the motion to assure that college experts were consulted in the process of evaluating academic standards. Indiana is currently reevaluating its 2010 decision to follow Common Core national standards.

But Ritz said the language of the resolution Oliver proposed was “improper” and “illegal” because it called for Gov. Mike Pence’s new Center for Education and Career Innovation to “coordinate” standard-setting activities. The center, created in August, has be the source of irritation for Ritz, who accused Pence of creating it to usurp her power as the chairwoman of the state board and head of the Indiana Department of Education.

Ritz is the only Democrat holding statewide office. Along with Pence, Republicans control both houses of the legislature and have appointed the other 10 state board members.

Setting standards, Ritz said, was the exclusive domain of the education department and could not be coordinated by another agency.

”This resolution says the [CECI] staff is to coordinate the board’s responsibilities and activities, to do all of the things the department has a responsibility to do,” she said at the time. “There is a reason for the check and balance that we have regarding standards.”

Zoeller disagreed.

The opinion, issued in response to a request by Ritz, says the question came down to whether the state board has the authority to designate or contract with others to perform its duties.

“”We find the the board has implicit authority to contract to perform its powers and duties,” the letter states. “Board staff may only carry out responsibilities and activities if they are acting within the scope of their authority properly granted to them by the board.”

Zoeller sided with the other board members over Ritz as to which section of Indiana code should be relied on to determine the board’s authority to set standards in this case. While state law dictates that the education department reconsider standards every six years, the letter noted that this time the legislature asked the board to reconsider Common Core standards outside of that six-year schedule. Because the legislators tapped the board specifically in a law approved earlier this year, it can lead the process, he wrote.

It was the latest in a string of setbacks for Ritz in her dispute with the state board and Pence over who controls education policy making in the state.

A lawsuit Ritz filed charging the state board held secret meetings was dismissed by a judge last month and the state’s public access counselor, Luke Britt, subsequently affirmed that board did not violate the law. A group of Ritz supporters have since sued the board again, asking a court to rule on the legitimacy of the its actions.

In a mediation session with the state board on Wednesday, Britt and a national school board expert mostly sided against Ritz on questions of board procedures.

The discontent on the board was not expected, said Oliver, who was appointed by Pence in July. It’s been upsetting, he said.

“I’ve been named in a lawsuit, accused of meeting in secret and accused of making an illegal motion,” he said of his short time on the board. “I would love to see this stuff stop. Lets put our energies into working together. We have a job to do.”

Oliver said he hoped Zoeller’s letter would allow his motion to be quickly approved so the state board could focus on evaluating Common Core standards, which he said was the “most important” task the board has before it. Oliver said he wants to work with Ritz on Common Core.

“I would love to see her and her staff redirect their leadership efforts into relationship building right now,” Oliver said. “We really do want to work with her.”