INDIANAPOLIS | The personal and political hostility that has, at times, disrupted and distracted the State Board of Education over the past nine months could hit a new high next week.
On Nov. 8, the 10-member Republican-appointed board will convene for its first meeting since being sued Tuesday by its chairwoman, Glenda Ritz, the elected Democratic state superintendent of public instruction.
Ritz has alleged the board held an illegal meeting by secretly drafting and submitting a letter requesting a legislative agency calculate 2011-12 school grades instead of her Department of Education. She's asked a judge to bar the Legislative Services Agency from compiling the grades until the board makes a proper request.
A hearing in the case is set for Nov. 5 in Indianapolis.
The first-year schools chief told reporters last week that her lawsuit has nothing to do with politics, only procedure. She wants to ensure the board conducts its business in accordance with the state's Open Door Law.
"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.
"While I respect the commitment and expertise of members of the board individually, they have collectively over-stepped their bounds."
Board members, including Gary's Tony Walker, deny they did anything wrong. Walker has called Ritz's lawsuit "frivolous" and "a political ploy."
He also questions whether Ritz can even lead the board anymore.
"How do you work with 10 people that you are suing?" Walker asked.
Ritz said she plans to carry on as she has since defeating Republican State Superintendent Tony Bennett last year. He was personal friends with several board members, including the biggest thorn in Ritz's side, Daniel Elsener.
"I plan to run the meetings in a professional manner as I always have and will continue to do that," Ritz said. "We have topics we have to address, we have decisions that need to be made, and I plan to continue as I have been."
State lawmakers have ordered the school board develop by Nov. 15 a new A-F model for grading schools that will replace the difficult to understand and easily manipulated grading system it crafted under Bennett.
The board also will have to decide soon whether to reaffirm its commitment to the Common Core educational standards.
Under Bennett, the board adopted Common Core as Indiana's standards. Top Republicans, including Gov. Mike Pence, have since "paused" implementation of those standards while they look at whether the state should quit Common Core and create its own college- and career-ready standards.
At least six board members appear ready to work with Ritz on those issues. In letters sent Friday to the superintendent, Troy Albert, David Freitas, Gordon Hendry, Andrea Neal, Sarah O’Brien and Walker promise to move beyond politics and past squabbles for the sake of Hoosier children.
"In the interest of our students — the future of our state — we are ready to set that aside and start over," Walker said.
That message seems not to have reached Indiana Republican Chairman Tim Berry. The former state auditor blasted Ritz in an email message sent to GOP supporters Friday, accusing her of not understanding public meeting requirements and ignoring the needs of schools and students.
"Our superintendent is supposed to be a champion of the children, but is acting more like a champion of the Democratic Party," Berry said.
The Center for Education and Career Innovation, a new state agency created by Pence to give the education board a staff independent of Ritz, also appears to still be gunning for the superintendent.
Moments after Ritz finished her Thursday news conference, CECI staff fired off 10 Twitter messages accusing Ritz of lying no fewer than four times.
Pence has kept his distance from the entire controversy. He talks often about his positive relationship with the superintendent and defends the right of the school board to set state education policy.
"I'm confident we'll work this out," Pence said. "There's people of goodwill in this, and whether there's been a misunderstanding or not, we need to stay focused on our kids."