Video & story: Attorney general asks court to dismiss Ritz lawsuit against ed board

By Lesley Weidenbener
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller has asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz filed this week against 10 members of the State Board of Education

Zoeller said the superintendent had no authority to file the suit, although Ritz said her office will oppose its dismissal.

“As the lawyer for state government and the state’s chief legal officer, the attorney general has sole legal authority to represent state officials and agencies in court or to permit outside counsel to do so,” Bryan Corbin, Zoeller’s spokesman, said on Thursday.

“In-house agency lawyers cannot appear in court on behalf of the state,” he said. The attorney general’s motion asks a judge to strike the appearance of the Department of Education attorneys and the lawsuit they filed.

At issue are grades the Board of Education – which Ritz chairs – must assign schools annually. Members of the board say they’re worried DOE is not moving quickly enough to get the grades ready but Ritz said the agency is ahead of last year’s timeline given how late vital standardized testing scores were finalized.

The board members signed a letter last week to GOP legislative leaders, asking them to give the A-F school grading process to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.

Then on Tuesday, Ritz filed the suit in Marion Circuit Court. It accuses 10 members of the State Board of Education – who were all appointed by Republican governors – of violating the state’s Open Door Law by meeting secretly and taking action in an effort to undermine her authority.

“Let me be clear, the letter that the members of the Board sent to Republican legislative leadership asking that LSA take over A-F grading was done without public notice, approval or even public opportunity to comment,” Ritz said Thursday.

“I have always believed that fair, open and transparent decision-making is best and it is disappointing to learn that the board took action in a different manner,” she said.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, defended her decision Thursday to file a lawsuit against the other 10 members of the Board of Education, whom she accuses of taking action secretly to try to undermine her authority. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, defended her decision Thursday to file a lawsuit against the other 10 members of the Board of Education, whom she accuses of taking action secretly to try to undermine her authority. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com

However, Ritz said she would be open to discussions about mediation or settling the dispute.

Corbin said Thursday that the attorney general’s office has not taken sides in the lawsuit, even though he’s seeking to have it dismissed.

“For purposes of this motion filed today, the attorney general does not represent the 10 individual board members, but rather state government itself and he is asserting that legal authority,” Corbin said.

He said a hearing on the suit has not been set.

The suit is the latest development in a battle between Ritz, the education board and other GOP officials that began when she won the office in November, ousting Republican Tony Bennett, who had been expected to win easily.

Since then, Republicans and the GOP-appointed education board have taken steps to weaken Ritz’s authority and work around the Department of Education.

That’s been complicated by accusations that Bennett ordered changes to last year’s A-F formula in an attempt to help an Indianapolis charter school he’d been touting. That move also changed grades for hundreds of other schools.

Gov. Mike Pence said Thursday that he supports the State Board of Education in its efforts to speed up the release of A-F grades by having the Legislative Servcies agency work on them. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com

Gov. Mike Pence said Thursday that he supports the State Board of Education in its efforts to speed up the release of A-F grades by having the Legislative Services Agency work on them. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com

An independent investigation ordered by the General Assembly found that the changes Bennett made were “plausible,” although it also said the Department of Education had been unprepared to implement changes to the A-F system. And it said the grades had been rushed. The authors urged state officials to slow down as they prepared future grades.

But earlier on Thursday, Gov. Mike Pence – who recently created a new agency in part to staff the Board of Education that Ritz chairs – said he supports the members’ move to try to get the A-F grades finished more quickly.

“Our schools are anxiously awaiting the results of these A-F grades,” Pence said. “Our parents deserve to know how their schools are performing and teacher pay raises in many jurisdictions around Indiana are dependent on the performance of their schools.”

But DOE officials have said they are on track to have the grades completed in the coming weeks – but only after parents have had time to appeal student grades, which is required by state law.

On Thursday, Ritz said that 55,000 parents have appealed their children’s test results, a 20 percent increase over last year. The rescoring is done by hand and should be completed by Nov. 5.

“Because Indiana has such a high-stakes testing system, one changed score can affect not just a student or school, but multiple schools,” Ritz said. “My administration has consistently provided this needed data to schools and will continue to do so openly and as fast as possible.”

Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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