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Five hints for where Glenda Ritz and the state board are headed

Kris Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, leads the state board in discussion Wednesday. (Scott Elliott)

Kris Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, leads the state board in discussion Wednesday. (Scott Elliott)

As Indiana state Superintendent Glenda Ritz publicly tangled with Gov. Mike Pence one more time on Wednesday, the gun smoke of the pair’s ongoing power struggle once again obscured the board’s actual work.

And during the planned mediation session, which was supposed to help heal hard feelings among Ritz and the 11 board members, some work did get done.

Indeed, the meeting — which was mediated by Kris Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, and featured a presentation by Luke Britt, Indiana’s public access counselor — produced several revealing hints for where the board may be headed.

Here are five:

1. The state board could seek to contain Ritz by redefining her role.

A couple of times during the meeting, board members noted that they had researched the law on the chair’s duties and found that it is up to the board to define them.

“It hasn’t been defined by the General Assembly,” board member Tony Walker said. “It has to be set by agreement of the board.”

That means the board could write new rules for the chairwoman’s powers, perhaps stripping Ritz of the ability to deny motions without consent of the board or requiring her to add items to the agenda when requested. That would take away two tools Ritz has used to guide the meeting toward items she prefers to discuss and away from those she prefers to pass by.

If the board creates new rules that limit Ritz’s ability to control the meeting or set the agenda, then her power could be greatly reduced to just one of 11 votes on the board. That would clear the way for the other 10 members to push their proposals more quickly — and to ignore Ritz’s policy preferences.

2. Ritz appeared to be losing on procedural questions.

During the meeting, state board members lobbed questions at the mediator, Amundson, and Britt, the public access counselor who made a presentation — and most of the answers weren’t great news for Ritz.

A sampling of the key questions and Amundson and Britt’s answers:

Should Ritz be allowed to decide what items are placed on the agenda?

Upon hearing that some agenda items were denied by Ritz and that the state board’s rules required 10-day notice to place an item on the agenda, Amundson said the policy was too restrictive.

“I am perplexed that you do not start every meeting by asking for additions to agenda or changes,” she said.

Should the state board be able to call its attorney to speak?

One of the oddities that has resulted from Gov. Mike Pence’s decision to separate the state board from the Indiana Department of Education and allow the board to hire its own staff is that the state board sometimes gets conflicting legal advice from lawyers for the department and the board.

During heated debates, Ritz has declined requests by the board to hear from its attorney, in one instance ordering the board’s attorney to sit down because she had not been recognized.

Amundson said it was “never a bad idea” to allow legal advisers to speak when either side has questions for them.

Who gets the final say on motions and voting?

Another key question was who gets to make final decisions for the board on matters such as whether a vote should be held on a motion. Ritz and the board have clashed several times when she refused to recognize motions or permit votes if she deemed them improper.

Both Amundson and Britt advised that the full board should decide those questions together.

“That’s a governance procedure you can set,” Britt said.

When board member Dan Elsener asked Amundson if the board was the final arbiter on these questions, Amundson agreed that the board should be.

3. The question of whether the state board broke the law, as Ritz claims, is not yet settled.

In his presentation to the board, Britt was blunt in advising that board members need to be careful about discussing board business using email.

A court threw out Ritz’s transparency lawsuit against the state board and Britt himself ruled for the board on the question of whether the board broke the law by deciding through emails to send a letter asking for help from legislative leaders. But Britt cautioned he felt the board was “very, very close” to violating state transparency laws with its email discussions.

Meanwhile, the four citizens who filed the complaint that Britt denied have decided to get a second opinion. On Wednesday, they filed a lawsuit asking a court to decide if the state board broke the law.

Britt’s decision is non-binding. It is merely an informed opinion interpreting state law. Courts are the ultimate deciders on matters of law.

But even if the lawsuit prevails, it’s not clear what real impact the decision would have. Normally, courts that overrule a state board on transparency grounds will invalidate the decision the board made and order it not to make the same mistake again.

In this case, the letter that initially sparked the controversy is moot. The letter, sent by all members of the board except Ritz to Republican legislative leaders, asked lawmakers to take over the process of issuing A to F grades for schools in order to assure they were issued earlier than Ritz’s planned late November release. It’s now December, and the board doesn’t plan to vote to approve and release the grades until Dec. 20.

4. Ritz was able to prove that CECI has thought about ways to strip her powers, but legislation may not be forthcoming.

From the moment Pence created the Center for Education and Career Innovation in August, Ritz has argued one of the center’s goals was to limit her power.

And yesterday, in an Oct. 3 email that Ritz released, CECI lawyer James Betley clearly proposed an option for asking the legislature to remove Ritz as chairwoman of the state board.

What’s not clear is whether those ideas were ever seriously considered by CECI, Pence or legislative leaders.

Pence’s spokeswoman said Wednesday he was opposed to legislation that strips any power from Ritz and that he personally told Ritz of that opposition when they met last week.

House speaker Brian Bosma said today he is not aware of any bill to change Ritz’s duties and would move to block it if there was one. “I don’t think it’s the right time to make any significant revisions in the superintendent’s authority right now,” he said. “I’m going to stand in the way of any very serious effort to do that.”

5. The next board meeting on Dec. 20 will be high-stakes.

If the hope for Wednesday’s mediation session was that it might cool tempers and lead to compromise, that plan failed. By the end of the meeting, disputes among Ritz, Pence and the state board had been ratcheted up, if anything.

At the board’s next meeting, scheduled for two weeks from tomorrow, the main purpose is for the board to finally approve A to F school grades. But after Wednesday’s discussion, the consensus among board members seemed to be that the board should set new rules for how it conducts business as soon as possible.

Those rules could include limits on Ritz’s control of the meetings.

Board members did not seem inclined to wait for new rules that Ritz has said she is working on with Pence.

“Any discussion with the governor’s office are really irrelevant to what were doing here,” Walker said during the mediation session. “If you would start having discussions with us instead of with the governor, who is not here, we wouldn’t have a need to be here right now.”

The board’s current rules, which were approved in May, are not working, Walker said, and he blamed Ritz.

“She stopped following them,” Walker said. “She has turned parliamentary authority into absolute veto power. That has to be removed.”