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Zoeller moves to block state education suit

Zoeller
Ritz

– Attorney General Greg Zoeller stepped into the fray Thursday, filing court paperwork to block a lawsuit initiated by the Democratic state education chief against the Republican-dominated Indiana Board of Education.

He said he isn’t taking sides in the dispute but is protecting his jurisdiction as the sole legal authority to represent the state in court.

“In-house agency lawyers cannot appear in court on behalf of the state, the motion notes, so the (Department of Education’s) attorneys’ appearances and their complaint filed Tuesday are unauthorized and invalid,” a news release said.

The motion to strike was filed in Marion County Circuit Court. No hearings are scheduled.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz filed suit Tuesday against the 10 members of the state Board of Education who signed a letter asking Republican legislative leaders to have the bipartisan Legislative Services Agency step in to calculate the state accountability rankings for schools.

She chairs the board and was not notified of the letter. Instead, it was discussed in emails and phone calls by the members and each one – including several Democrats – signed.

Ritz said she met Wednesday with Zoeller, a Republican, and is willing to work with him for an out-of-court settlement.

But she said that if the resolution isn’t satisfactory, “the courts may be the only option.”

She said her attorneys will object in court to Zoeller’s move to dismiss the case, and she said she looks forward to a hearing on the matter.

Ritz believes the board took official action outside a public meeting, violating the state’s open meeting law. She supports an open and transparent process.

“It’s about how we’re going to conduct business,” she said. “And as chair of the board, we’re going to conduct business in public, as it should be, and not in any other fashion.”

The underlying debate is about the issuance of A-F grades for Indiana schools this year. Board members and Gov. Mike Pence feel Ritz is unnecessarily slowing the process.

“I strongly support the effort of the state Board of Education to work with the Department of Education and legislative services to get these grades done for the last school year,” Pence said.

“Our schools are anxiously awaiting the results of these A-F grades. Our parents deserve to know how their schools are performing, and teacher pay raises … are dependent on the performance of their schools.”

But Ritz said massive interruptions during the spring ISTEP+ tests required an outside analysis and generally have delayed the process. She said that a statewide rescore window is ongoing and that 55,000 appeals have been filed – a 20 percent increase – out of about 1.2 million tests. The rescore data is expected Nov. 5.

The Department of Education expects to have the grades calculated by Thanksgiving.

“Because Indiana has such a high-stakes testing system, one changed score can affect not just a student or school, but multiple schools,” she said.

“My administration has consistently provided this needed data to schools and will continue to do so openly and as fast as possible.”

Another problem is the loss of a key assessment figure in the Department of Education. Wes Bruce, assistant superintendent, retired from the department a few weeks ago and is now working from home for another state.

He said that in a normal year without testing problems, the assessment and accountability process is a complex system with lots of dependencies.

“If one piece is broken, it’s a problem,” said Bruce, who also worked under former GOP Superintendents Tony Bennett and Suellen Reed.

“I know there are some wires crossed between the department and the state board.

“We were pushing data as fast as we were comfortable pushing it to ensure accuracy,” he said. “The ISTEP problems threw a wrench in all the normal deadlines.”

nkelly@jg.net

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