'Independent' has lengthy GOP background

2013-09-08T22:15:00Z 2013-10-05T17:22:12Z 'Independent' has lengthy GOP backgroundBy Dan Carden dan.carden@nwi.com, (317) 637-9078 nwitimes.com
September 08, 2013 10:15 pm  • 

INDIANAPOLIS | The State Board of Education appears to be operating with more Republican members than permitted under Indiana law.

According to Indiana Code, no more than six of the 10 members on the governor-appointed board may be from the same political party. The governor's office claims six Republicans, two Democrats and two independents serve on the panel.

However, a review by The Times has determined Daniel Elsener, one of the claimed independents, is likely a Republican.

Voting records show Elsener cast a ballot in Republican primary elections nine out of 10 times since 1994. He voted in the 2000 Democratic primary.

Elsener also has donated $10,575 to Republican candidates and business groups supporting Republicans since 2001 -- and nothing to Democratic or independent groups, according to state campaign finance records.

On Wednesday, Elsener led what amounted to a board coup against its chairwoman Glenda Ritz, the Democratic state superintendent of public instruction, who defeated Republican Tony Bennett in a 2012 election.

Prompted by Elsener, the education board voted to sideline Ritz and appoint him to lead a six-month strategic planning process that will set the state's education goals.

That effort will be aided by the Center for Education and Career Innovation, a state agency created last month by Republican Gov. Mike Pence -- without input by Ritz. The new agency gives the State Board of Education a budget and staff independent of the Indiana Department of Education.

Elsener, who was first appointed to the state education board in 2005 by Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and is president of Indianapolis' Marian University, insisted in an email responding to questions about his party ties that he is "an independent thinker" that votes for candidates "I believe would perform the best in the office."

"During my adult life, I've supported Democrats and Republicans, with both my time and my money. I supported Evan Bayh, and I supported Mitch Daniels. But, ultimately, I believe that my decision in the voting booth is my business," Elsener said.

Elsener did not explicitly deny he is a Republican.

The governor's office did not reply to questions about how it vets the political affiliations of state education board members. State law does not clearly indicate how a board member's political party should be determined or the consequences of ignoring the party limit.

State Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point, believes it's a serious dereliction of duty for Pence to stack the board with more Republicans than the law allows.

"It's definitely something I think the governor needs to reevaluate," VanDenburgh said. "If they're going in and declaring themselves Republican for the last 13 years, then that's a Republican. It doesn't count as an independent, and it surely isn't a Democrat."

VanDenburgh also blasted the relationship between Elsener and Bennett that led the state board to rubber-stamp Bennett's controversial promotion of charter and private schools over public schools and is impeding Ritz's agenda.

She noted Elsener is the former executive director of the Christel DeHaan Family Foundation, an organization established by the creator of Christel House, the Indianapolis charter school whose state grade the Department of Education has determined Bennett improperly boosted from a "C" to an "A" in 2012.

Bennett, who received $110,000 in campaign donations from DeHaan, resigned as Florida's schools chief in July after the grade manipulation was uncovered. 

In 2010, Elsener's Marian University was awarded a $500,000 grant from Bennett's Department of Education to administer a school principal training program. The award was based in part on Marian's successful Teach for America program that was run by Bennett's wife, Tina.

Ritz's spokesman Daniel Altman would not comment on the potential that recent actions taken by the State Board of Education may be illegal.

"The superintendent is focused on working with Hoosiers of all political stripes to improve education for Indiana students," Altman said.

Tony Walker, a Democratic state education board member from Gary, said he believes the partisanship limits should be tossed because any governor is only going to appoint board members that agree with the governor's education policy.

"I do not believe the partisan affiliations play any role in our deliberations," Walker said. "Quite frankly, there is no consensus within the two major parties on most education issues."

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