Lawsuits targeting publicly financed agencies are never welcome, but Hoosiers need the legal analysis demanded by four public education advocates. In challenging actions taken by the State Board of Education, their suit will clarify the authority of public boards and commissions to operate outside public view.
The Indiana Public Access Counselor could have settled the question in his ruling on the open meetings law complaint filed by Julie Hollingsworth, a member of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board, and three other public school advocates. But Luke Britt, appointed by Gov. Mike Pence, took a pass on issuing a clear message on the law. He opted instead to recommend that the General Assembly clarify the law.
The governor and his education administration surely would prefer that the laws fate rest with the GOP-controlled legislature, but Hoosiers deserve a ruling free of partisanship.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, earlier filed a lawsuit alleging the State Board of Educations actions in meeting by email were illegal. Her lawsuit was dismissed not because it lacked merit but because the judge ruled she did not have authority to file suit without Republican Attorney General Greg Zoellers representation, or his permission to retain other attorneys. The same restrictions dont apply to Hollingsworth and the three other plaintiffs, Bloomington parent Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer and former school superintendents Ed Eiler and Tony Lux.
While Zoeller has championed other public-access issues and occasionally avoided partisan battles, his unwillingness to resolve the questions involved contributes to the confusion and uncertainty regarding school policy.
Zoellers and Britts refusal to step up for open government leaves a gaping hole that can be closed only with a judicial ruling. The suits assertion that the State Board of Education violated the Indiana Open Door Law takes on urgency with release of correspondence between officials of Pences newly created Center for Education and Career Innovation. Claire Fiddian-Green, one of those officials, engineered the email end-run by appointed members of the State Board of Education, requesting legislative involvement in the states flawed A-F school-grading process.
The newly released correspondence reveals a plan to cut the elected state superintendent out of decision-making authority, effectively leaving voters without direct representation. Its a back-door attack on long-established checks and balances, leaving the state at risk of continual disagreements over contentious issues.
The CECI document outlines policy details regarding charter schools, vouchers, teacher regulations and more, declaring as a problem the state superintendents performance as chairman of the State Board of Education. The problem, it seems, is that she wont allow the board to rubber-stamp policy crafted outside public view – policy like the controversial Common Core State Standards, unanimously approved by an appointed board under Ritzs predecessor, Tony Bennett.
Indiana is one of only two states whereby the elected superintendent is also chair of the policymaking State Board, according to the document. This introduces real as well as perceived conflicts of interest.
Yet there were no suggestions of real or perceived conflicts when Republican Suellen Reed chaired state boards appointed by three Democratic governors. The problem seemed to come only when Ritz defeated Bennett, the governors favored candidate for state superintendent.
With evidence that the new shadow agency is eagerly crafting policy outside public view and actively seeking to marginalize an elected official, a ruling in the open meetings suit takes on great importance.