By Lesley Weidenbener
Lesley Weidenbener, executive editor, TheStatehouseFile.com
INDIANAPOLIS – When the State Board of Education convenes this week at Purdue University, its members have a chance to redeem not just the group’s reputation but that of education leadership in Indiana as well.
For roughly two years, the board has been a showcase for all that’s wrong with government. It’s not just that the members have disagreed. That could be a sign of healthy discussion that should be part of making decisions about how we educate more than 1 million students in Indiana.
No. The past two years have been ugly and embarrassing. It’s been about two sides – and sometimes more – working to get the upper hand on the other.
It’s been not about finding compromise or considering new ideas or finding ways to improve old ones. Instead, it’s been about blame and nitpicking and politics – at least for some of those involved – and it’s time for that to stop.
Now, it just might.
“In my book, that all ends. Right here, right now,” said Byron Earnest, one of five new appointees joining the 11-member board.
His appointment is part of a partial restructuring ordered by lawmakers who repeatedly called the outgoing group “dysfunctional.”
Earnest – who was appointed by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis – told TheStatehouseFile.com that a new beginning for the board doesn’t mean that all disagreements will end. In fact, they shouldn’t.
Instead, board members must find ways to work through their disputes in a cooperative fashion.
“Really highly functioning organizations do have conflict, do have differences and at the end of the day what’s important is we have to have consensus,” Earnest said.
The restructuring meant that Republican Gov. Mike Pence lost two of his original 10 appointments, although he retains eight. The leaders of the House and Senate – both Republicans – each now get one. And state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, remains the chair, at least for now.
Ritz will be starting somewhat fresh, without two of the board’s most vocal rabble-rousers – Marian University President Dan Elsener and Indiana Wesleyan University Education Dean Brad Oliver, who were not reappointed. They were among Ritz’s most frequent and outspoken critics.
But that doesn’t give Ritz some free pass. Several of the remaining board members have had issues with Ritz as well, criticizing the superintendent for failing to provide information to them quickly, for hiding problems with key programs and testing, and for trying to act without their input.
And if she continues to act in a way that makes members feel excluded or that she’s not interested in their involvement, her problems – and those of the board – won’t go away.
Hoosiers will be looking for the board to make a fresh start. It’s not about discouraging genuine discourse about the complex and often emotional issues about schools. But it’s about respecting one another and the board as an important institution of state government and then doing what’s best for kids.
Lesley Weidenbener is the executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.