MARC CHASE: Hoosier education board should heed friendly advice

2013-12-03T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: Hoosier education board should heed friendly adviceMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
December 03, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Hoosier state education officials are providing quite the example these days for our children. It's a relief teachers -- not politicians -- are the ones dealing directly with our kids.

A power struggle between the majority of the Indiana Board of Education, loyal to GOP Gov. Mike Pence, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, is truly out of hand.

Unfortunately, most of us have come to expect this type of behavior in government and politics -- the same way we expect a couple of pre-teen siblings to squabble in the backseat during a long road trip. But it crosses the line when the players in this childish game toss out ethics and just barely skirt one of the most important laws protecting the public from potential government insidiousness.

Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, appointed to that office by Pence, recently issued a legal opinion about the behaviors of the Board of Education where public access to their decisions and gatherings are concerned. Though Britt found no violations of law, he concluded the education board created a perception of violating the public trust by operating in the shadows rather than an open public forum.

Britt's recently issued opinion takes on a tone of friendly advice, and all education board members -- Republican, Democrat and independent -- would be wise to follow it.

In October, Superintendent Ritz, apparently tired of being marginalized by the Pence-loyal GOP majority on the board, filed a lawsuit alleging the board, which she chairs, held an illegal meeting. The suit contended the board violated Indiana's Open Door Law by drafting and submitting a letter, without her knowledge or public notice, requesting that a legislative agency calculate the 2011-12 school grades instead of Ritz's office, which typically is charged with the task.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, a Republican, challenged Ritz's ability to file a lawsuit without approval from the attorney general's office, and a Marion County judge agreed, tossing the lawsuit last month.

But that didn't stop former Merrillville schools chief Tony Lux from filing a complaint with the state's public access counselor, leading to Britt's recent legal opinion.

Because education board members made the decision to usurp Ritz's authority via email -- and not through a public vote -- and because the law is ambiguous on whether such an act would constitute a open meetings violation, Britt concluded no law was violated.

However, he also rightfully concluded that even through email, the board created a public perception running counter to "openness and transparency."

"I encourage all public agencies to be especially attentive to the purpose of public access laws to avoid ambiguous situations and arousing suspicions of prohibited activities," Britt wrote.

Education board Republicans and Ritz need to work this out in the light of day -- in public meetings, not through emails and lawsuits.

Perhaps with more eyes watching, the board would be less inclined to play politics with our children's education policy.

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