Hot-Button Issues: Ritz vs. Board of Education

Can Indiana’s public-schools czar and other policymakers play nice together?

Editor’s Note: From gay marriage to Glenda Ritz, Obamacare to Sunday booze, we’re presenting 10 topics that Hoosiers will be fired up about this year—and what you need to know before jumping into heated cocktail-party discussions. See the full list here.

The Skinny

Upon being sworn in last January, Indiana educator-in-chief Glenda Ritz braced for a fight. Who could blame her? She’s one of only two Democrats to hold a statewide office. On the State Board of Education, the policymaking body she chairs, she serves with 10 other members appointed by Republican governors. She’s surrounded. From dust-ups over teacher licensing to who controls the monthly meeting’s agenda, what used to be two-hour to-do sessions under predecessor Tony Bennett now boil over into daylong battles royale; Ritz stormed out of a November board meeting, and Department of Education staffers took down the podium behind her.

Tensions erupted last fall when board members accused Ritz of dragging her feet on calculating A-to-F school-accountability grades, a hallmark of Bennett’s reform agenda, and took the fight to the General Assembly, asking lawmakers to task the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency with determining school grades instead. Meanwhile, important decisions on issues such as whether to adopt Common Core, a controversial set of federal academic standards, stalled.Ritz vs. Board of Education

Boiling Point

In an unprecedented gambit, Ritz blindsided some individual board members with a lawsuit in October, claiming that they violated the state’s open-meeting laws by conducting business without her—a maneuver that raised the eyebrows of even a few fellow Democrats.

The Players

Marian University president Daniel J. Elsener, Ritz’s chief antagonist on the board, and members Troy Albert, David Freitas, Sarah O’Brien, and Tony Walker, who asked Ritz to drop the suit in an open letter … David Galvin, Ritz’s top adviser, whom many credit with steering her upset election victory over Bennett in 2012 … Gov. Mike Pence, whom Ritz accused of attempting a “takeover of the Department of Education” in an Indianapolis Starop-ed.

   Glenda Ritz         Daniel Elsener         Tony Bennett

Players: (l-r) Ritz, Elsener, Bennett

When It Will Go Down

Marion County Circuit Judge Louis Rosenberg threw out Ritz’s suit last November. But the board’s monthly bouts—er, meetings—should continue to black eyes and bloody noses, as Ritz and company battle over A–F school evaluations and Common Core. Next rematch: February 5 (bring popcorn, a sack lunch, and, just to be safe, dinner).

The Upper Hand

Nearly everyone but Ritz, who will continue to face end-run attempts—a possibility only exacerbated by her lawsuit. But don’t count her out: She’s a fighter with vocal backers who seem eager to mix it up on her behalf. (Just ask Bennett, who lost his post-Indiana gig in Florida after Ritz staffers started poking around in his old Department of Education e-mails.)

Follow Along

@Ritz4Ed / @IndianaCECI / @IndianaStand / @ScottElliott_IN

A version of this article appeared in the January 2014 issue. Reporting by
IM contributing editor Adam Wren.