By Lesley Weidenbener
INDIANAPOLIS – When the State Board of Education meeting went off Friday without a hitch, it was hard to tell who was more relieved – the participants or the observers.
For months now, the board has been bickering. Or more accurately, the 10 members appointed by current and former Republican governors have been wrangling with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who won the office in 2012.
Last summer, Gov. Mike Pence even created a new state agency – the Center for Education and Career Innovation – to essentially represent the board in the disputes.
Things got so bad that the 10 board members went behind Ritz’s back to ask for help from legislative leaders and then Ritz actually sued her fellow board members. Later, she walked out of a meeting.
Along the way, the group was barely functioning, despite some incredibly important work on its agenda, including the crafting of new curriculum standards and new school accountability polices – as well as the assignment of grades to schools.
State Board of Education members B.J. Watts, Sarah O’Brien and Tony Walker shared a light moment at a meeting Friday after Superintendent Glenda Ritz announced she has a new grandchild. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com
In a sort of deal brokered by Ritz and Pence, the board brought in the National Association of School Boards of Education to try to mediate the dispute. Still, the first meeting where NASBE’s Kristen Amundson tried to work with the board was all but a disaster.
Because of the way the superintendent had notified the public about the meeting, no official action could be taken. The members couldn’t really debate some of the problems that had plagued it, including the way it operated, and couldn’t vote on any new procedures. Members left ticked.
But sometime between that messy meeting and the one the board had last week, something happened. Amundson solicited information from all the members – asking what was working, what wasn’t, about relations among members, about frustrations and problems.
She took those results and worked with a smaller team to try to hammer out a new board procedures agreement, one that would govern how the group operates inside and outside its meetings and include details about how items get on the agenda, the rules for the way votes are handled and who can speak at meetings.
The board didn’t work out everything. But members got far enough that on Friday, the board approved a new set of operating procedures. Among the changes is a reduction in the amount of notice a member must give to put an item on the agenda for consideration, a new rule that requires the public only to speak to items on the agenda, and a line that says no board member can be deprived of the basic rights of board membership, including the ability to put items on the agenda.
That’s been a big issue for the board. Members say they’ve spent months trying to get Ritz to put an item on the agenda – in a way that it can be discussed and voted on – to no avail. The new rules appear to solve the problem.
The board approved the new procedures with barely a discussion and then agreed to keep working on a few issues that remain unresolved. Among them are proposals to have a board parliamentarian, create board committees, and when the board’s attorney (rather than the Department of Education attorney) can address the group or answer questions.
The board later approved A-F grades for schools after a cordial discussion that led to suggestions for next year but never erupted into a quarrel. And it even discussed curriculum issues without raised voices.
To anyone who hasn’t been watching the board, these may seem like the way business ought to be done. But for the State Board of Education, the meeting was a big step forward. Whether the battle is still smoldering under the surface is unclear. But for now, the ceasefire is a welcome.
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.
Filed Under: Political