INDIANAPOLIS | Personality and political conflicts on the State Board of Education make it increasingly likely the panel will fail to set new, effective criteria for rating school performance using A-F grades by Nov. 15, as required by law.
The Republican-appointed board clashed again last week with Glenda Ritz, the elected Democratic state superintendent of public instruction, when she refused -- under her authority as the board's chairwoman -- to rearrange the monthly meeting agenda so new board staff, independent of the Ritz-led Department of Education, could give a report.
Board members Tony Walker, of Gary, and Daniel Elsener, of Indianapolis, spent more than 30 minutes repeatedly demanding the board's rules be suspended so their staff could address the board earlier than scheduled.
Ritz stood her ground. She said the board owes it to Hoosiers attending meetings or watching online to stick to the agenda so the public knows what will be discussed, and when.
Tempers flared again during discussion of the current A-F system for rating Indiana schools that the board created in 2011-12 under Republican former Superintendent Tony Bennett.
Bennett altered the grading scheme without board permission last year and boosted the grades of 165 schools when he discovered a favored kindergarten-ninth grade charter school was set to receive a low grade. He resigned as Florida's schools chief when the grade manipulation was uncovered.
Ritz, a Democrat, defeated Bennett, a Republican, in November 2012 for the top school post.
Ritz asked the board for guidance Wednesday on how grades should be calculated for schools with nontraditional grade groupings, such as a grade six-10 school, which don't neatly fit in either the elementary/middle or high school rating categories set by the board.
Reluctant to trust Ritz's staff as they explained options for adjusting the grading system, Elsener repeatedly asked the board's staff -- two former Bennett employees -- how things used to be done.
For more than 90 minutes, board members insisted on independently verifying with their staff nearly every fact asserted by Ritz's staff.
Eventually, the panel agreed to keep Bennett's manipulated 2011-12 school grades intact and approved Ritz's suggested fix for 2012-13 grades.
The board's dysfunction might be laughed away under other circumstances, but the General Assembly has given the school board a tight deadline to create a new A-F grading system that's easier to understand and more transparent than its first effort.
School grades affect concrete decisions, neighborhood reputations
The stakes are high as school grades are used in part to set teacher pay, decide whether a school should be taken over or shut down, and often affect local property values.
To ensure the board gets it right this time, the Republican leaders of the Indiana House and Senate, Republican Gov. Mike Pence and Ritz each appointed four members to a study committee that so far has met four times in the past three weeks and is due to meet three more times to craft a recommended school accountability system by Nov. 1.
However, Elsener and Walker indicated they're not particularly interested in the work of the Ritz-led Accountability System Review Panel and would prefer to keep the Bennett-designed school grading model.
"Why would we change?" Elsener asked. "We've had an independent, bipartisan study that said it was fine."
In fact, the Legislature-ordered review found the changes Bennett made were "plausible," but also identified numerous problems with the current grading system.
Authors Bill Sheldrake and John Grew urged the board rethink how school grades are calculated with an eye toward simplifying the system, making it more flexible for different types of schools and ensuring the public sees the grades as fair.
Numerous school corporations announced they no longer trust the A-F grading system, even though the idea of labeling schools with a single grade remains popular among Hoosiers.
State Board of Education members last week added a Nov. 13 meeting to its regularly scheduled Nov. 6 meeting to give themselves more time to decide on a new school grading system, which they have yet to discuss in any meaningful way.
Legislative leaders have hinted if the board ignores the study committee recommendation and again devises an unworkable grading scheme, state lawmakers may come up with one of their own when the General Assembly convenes in January.