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State school board degenerates into partisanship, incivility

Susan Brace served six peaceful, productive years on the Indiana State Board of Education. The contentious, divisive meetings she’s now watching from the sidelines make the retired teacher worry for the future of Indiana classrooms.

As the Fort Wayne Republican’s board experience showed, a state superintendent of one party and a board of education controlled by members of the other party doesn’t need to impede the progress of schools.

“When I was on the board, I couldn’t tell you who was Republican and who was a Democrat,” Brace said. “It was never obvious. We discussed things from the perspective of what is best for kids. It was all about the kids and what’s going to help them become the most competitive in a global economy, in becoming world-class citizens.”

Those might be the talking points for board members today, But the tension between most members and Superintendent Glenda Ritz makes the meetings uncomfortable to watch. Board members challenge the state superintendent’s authority as much on parliamentary procedure as on school policy. Board member Daniel Elsener, in particular, challenges Ritz at nearly every turn, interrupting her presentations, challenging her and asserting the board’s authority to act without her support.

He’s been assisted in his approach by Gov. Mike Pence, who used budget language that was quietly inserted in this year’s spending plan to give the appointed board control over functions formerly assigned to the elected state superintendent.

Of the 10 members, nine represent their respective congressional districts, while one member serves at large. Under state law, no more than six members can be from the same political party, but all 10 were appointed by either Gov. Mitch Daniels or Pence. Each appears to support the charters-and-choice movement Ritz has questioned.

Brace represented the 3rd congressional district on a board led by Republican Superintendent Suellen Reed, who served all but four of her 16 years as schools chief under Democratic governors and with Democratic-controlled boards of education. Brace said the members did not engage in partisan politics or ideological battles.

“There was never any kind of lobbying or discussions behind the scenes,” she said. “The atmosphere was one completely of working together, at looking at the same goals to make progress.”

Brace said decisions were based on research-backed information, with data guiding the board and measurable progress in student achievement the result. That’s not what she believes the board is doing today.

“It’s amazing that people can treat other people in such a way as the board is treating Glenda,” Brace said. “She’s working hard and she has a great perspective. She doesn’t get the respect she deserves, and no collaboration is going to happen without respect.”

It’s been nearly a year since Ritz was elected with a 140,000-vote margin over Tony Bennett. Her victory doesn’t give the long-time educator the right to single-handedly determine the state’s education policy, but nothing in her actions has shown that to be Ritz’s intent. She has attempted the same collaborative approach as Reed with none of the support Brace and her board colleagues afforded the board chairman.

In terms of civility and democracy, it’s a poor model for Indiana students and a discouraging sign for continued education progress.