INDIANAPOLIS | State Superintendent Glenda Ritz sued the State Board of Education on Tuesday, alleging the panel held an illegal meeting by drafting and submitting a letter requesting a legislative agency calculate 2011-12 school grades instead of the Department of Education.
The lawsuit, filed in Marion County, claims the 10 members of the education board violated the Indiana Open Door Law by failing to notify the public and Ritz, the board's chairwoman, that it was taking official action.
"When I was sworn in to office, I took an oath to uphold the laws of the state of Indiana. I take this oath very seriously, and I was dismayed to learn that other members of the state board have not complied with the requirements of the law," Ritz said. "I do not take this action lightly, but my obligations as elected state superintendent require it."
Multiple board members confirmed to The Times that they did not hold an in-person meeting. Instead, a draft letter was circulated via email among the board prior to being sent to House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne.
The letter, printed on board letterhead and signed by each member of the board, asks that the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency calculate school grades because Ritz is dragging her feet. Bosma and Long agreed to the request.
Ritz's lawsuit claims the board's decision to make a request to the Legislature constitutes "official action," which requires public notice of deliberations.
She asks that a judge find each member of the board violated the Open Door Law and that the Legislative Services Agency be prohibited from compiling school grades unless the board follows proper procedures in a subsequent request.
Tony Walker, a Gary attorney and Northwest Indiana's state school board member, said the board did not violate the Open Door Law — "there's not a hint of a violation" — and he called Ritz's lawsuit a "political ploy." Ritz is a Democrat; board members were appointed by Republican governors.
"The fact that we all signed on to a letter does not constitute a decision of the board because there's no effective action on policy or procedures by way of that letter," Walker said. "That letter is just a request for assistance."
He said the board probably shouldn't have sent the request on its letterhead, but he said that doesn't matter because email messages are not a meeting and the letter was not official action.
Republican Gov. Mike Pence strongly supports the board's efforts to get last year's school grades out faster because they affect federal funding and teacher wages, said Pence spokeswoman Christy Denault.
"The governor is confident that all relevant Indiana laws were followed," Denault said.
House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, pointed out that school grades were delayed by vendor-caused ISTEP+ test glitches that postponed until Nov. 5 the release of final test scores. Ritz has promised to send schools their preliminary grades before Thanksgiving.
"Regrettably, some believe achieving political victory trumps ensuring Hoosier students, teachers and local schools receiving the grade they rightfully earned," Pelath said. "Elevating cheap politics over ensuring accuracy is a far cry from what Hoosiers expect."