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Senate committee approves bill removing Ritz as state board chairwoman

The Senate Rules Committee heard testimony from those supporting and opposing Senate Bill 1, which would remove State Superintendent Glenda Ritz as chairwoman of the Indiana State Board of Education.
The Senate Rules Committee heard testimony from those supporting and opposing Senate Bill 1, which would remove State Superintendent Glenda Ritz as chairwoman of the Indiana State Board of Education.
Shaina Cavazos

It’s looking more likely that come July, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz might no longer be chairwoman of the Indiana State Board of Education.

Today the Senate Rules Committee approved Senate Bill 1, its version of a bill that would eliminate the guarantee in state state law that the superintendent will be the board’s leader, 7-4, split along party lines.

The House Education Committee heard a similar bill last week, which passed committee 8-3. Senate Bill 1, authored by Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, also would allow the state board to hire an executive director and secretary, among other changes to how the board operates. Holdman said he doubts most people even knew Ritz would be the board’s chairwoman when they voted for her.

“It really shouldn’t matter who the board chair is,” Holdman said. “Well you might say, ‘well why are we going to change it then?’ Well, we change it because it’s currently in a very dysfunctional state.”

Holdman also proposed two other iterations of the bill, Senate Bill 452 and Senate Bill 453, which differ in exactly how the 11-member state board would be selected. Those bills will not be heard, but some of their suggested changes to board composition could still be considered later in the legislative session, committee chairman Sen. David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said.

In all versions, the state superintendent would be a state board member, and members would come from a variety of backgrounds — including some educators. Senate Bills 452 and Senate Bill 453 would have given the state superintendent the power to make appointments, while just Senate Bill 453 would have extended appointments to majority and minority leaders from both chambers. Senate Bill 1 currently does neither. The board today is appointed by the governor but must include Republicans, Democrats and educators.

Robert Sommers, the director of Carpe Diem charter schools, said Indiana’s situation just doesn’t make sense. In the business world, he said, a CEO would never also chair the board of his or her company — it would be considered a conflict of interest. Therefore, a state superintendent, elected or not, shouldn’t run a state board of education.

“If your goal is to limit growth and change and consistency of policy, you have the ideal set of circumstances in Indiana,” Sommers said. “If you want to create world-class educational results, you have to have world-class policy and governance structures.”

Long and Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, generally agreed. Hershman said local school boards don’t have superintendents serve as board chairs, so why should the state?

“If it’s not a good idea at the local level,” Hershman said. “Then why is it good at the state level?”

But John Barnes, a lobbyist for the Indiana Department of Education and Ritz, said there’s a big difference — school boards hire superintendents, but voters elect the state superintendent.

Barnes said this conversation should be about clarifying the various roles between the state’s education policymakers and leaders to eliminate tensions among them. He suggested the matter go to a committee for further discussions this summer.

“In Indiana we also know that removing Superintendent Ritz as the chair has been on the governor’s legislative agenda for a year and a half,” Barnes said. “I believe that this bill removes the checks and balances on the board.”

Educators and teachers union leaders who opposed the bill were more blunt in their assessment of it — it would take choices away from voters and further limit Ritz’s power.

Lynn Slivka, a retired teacher of 40 years, said the bill is offensive not just to Democrats who might have supported Ritz, but to those of other political stripes who voted for her and even to those who voted against her.

“I feel that I am here on a matter of conscience,” Slivka said “Because it’s hard to turn your back on your party. It’s hard to vote for the other candidate, and those voters should be taken seriously. And they didn’t vote for a member of the state board of education. They voted for Superintendent Glenda Ritz.”

Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, who voted no, cautioned the committee that making changes to a system Indiana has had since 1913 seemed like a big reach.

“This is dangerous, and I actually think it’s a little arrogant for one party to legislate for this year without looking at the long term,” she said. “Be careful what you wish for. Your next governor could be a Democrat.”

The bill will next be taken up by the full Senate.

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