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House advances bill that would allow Ritz to be removed as state board chairwoman

Scott Elliott

The Indiana House Education Committee today voted along party lines to approve an amended version of Senate Bill 1, which would allow the State Board of Education to elect its own leader — removing the guarantee that state Superintendent Glenda Ritz serve as chairwoman of the state board.

The amended bill, which was passed 8-4 over objections from Democrats, is slightly different than the Senate version that was approved in February. It reduces to two the number of state board members that would be appointed by the House speaker and Senate president and would guarantee that gubernatorial appointments be chosen from each congressional district. The bill will next be heard by the full House.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, offered the amendment, which passed 7-4. He said it was important for the governor to retain a strong influence over the makeup of the board.

“I just believe the governor campaigns heavily on education,” Behning said. “Education is always a key point. I believe for that reason they need to have sufficient authority and control some of that.”

His plan would result in a bigger state board. Including the state superintendent’s seat and governor’s at-large appointment along with appointments from each of nine districts and two from legislative leaders, the state board would increase from 11 to 13 members. The bill passed today also requires that six state board members appointed by the governor hold active teaching licenses.

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, who authored the bill in the Senate, said he was eager to continue negotiations over the bill.

“We understand this is a work in progress,” Holdman said. “This bill is not done yet. I’m hopeful we’ll come to some compromise and some result that we can be content with on both sides.”

Four amendments proposed by Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, to keep Ritz as the chairwoman of the board or further change the makeup of the board failed along party lines. Ritz is the only Democrat elected to statewide office in Indiana.

Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, said he was bothered by the fact that Ritz didn’t attend the committee meeting. He also said he didn’t appreciate that she left a January committee hearing on HB 1609 before taking questions from legislators. That bill, which largely did the same thing as Senate Bill 1, died in the Senate last month.

“I find it odd and curious that this deals with a very important issue that is important to everybody, but yet her schedule does not allow her to come take questions personally,” Lucas said. “I would like those questions answered by her.”

John Barnes, a lobbyist for the Department of Education, said the superintendent is focused on doing her job. There have been plenty of opportunities for discussion, he said.

“We are always glad to sit down and talk with legislators,” Barnes said. “This is an amazingly busy woman.”

But Rep. Smith pointed out that Ritz wasn’t the only elected official who was missing from the hearing. Also missing, he noted, was Gov. Mike Pence, who first asked lawmakers in December to overhaul the state board structure and allow the state board to remove Ritz as the chairwoman.

“The governor has a pony in this race, maybe even a horse,” Smith said. “He has not come before us, but he’s delgated staff to become before us. … If you’re going to beat up on (Ritz), beat up on the governor.”

Smith then asked Chad Timmerman, director of education policy for Pence, why the governor hadn’t attended the committee meeting to “show how unfair this kind of questioning is.” Timmerman said Pence was busy working but was supportive of the bill.

“The governor has repeatedly asked that we get back to business of investing in our schools,” Timmerman said. “Allowing the board to select its own chair is a good step in that direction.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she was disappointed that the legislature seems to be more concerned with “moving around adults” than about enacting meaningful education policy.

“We don’t come in here to enact laws to accomodate personalities of the day,” Meredith said.

But Hoosiers for Quality Education policy director Caitlin Gamble said the discussion about the governance structure of the state board will ultimately lead to a more productive environment there.

“It’s time to spend less time arguing about process and politics,” Gamble said.

Before the bill becomes law, it will need to be taken up by the full Indiana House as well as go through the conference committee process where lawmakers from the Senate and House will hash out the differences in the bills.

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