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Open-meeting lawsuit can proceed

Education board accused of breaking law with email

INDIANAPOLIS – A Marion County judge has cleared the way for a lawsuit to proceed against members of the State Board of Education that alleges public access violations.

Marion County Judge Cynthia Ayers denied the state’s request that the case be dismissed on questions of whether the plaintiffs had the standing to sue.

At issue is whether board members violated Indiana’s open-meetings laws by circulating a letter seeking changes in who calculates the state’s A-F school grades.

The suit mirrors a challenge that state Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz filed last year against board members. A Marion County judge dis­missed that on the grounds that Ritz could not take such a step without the approval of the state attorney general’s office.

The attorney general’s office has argued that no formal meeting occurred concerning the letter, so there was no violation of the state’s open-meetings laws. But Ayers’ order said the law is unclear on the issue of whether conducting business by email counts as a meeting under the law.

“In order for the court to properly determine this issue while liberally construing the provisions of the Open Door Law, a full examination of the facts and circumstances of the events in question is necessary,” Ayers wrote.

Democratic lawyer Bill Groth, who filed the suit on behalf of four residents, including a former Merrillville schools superintendent, said Tuesday he is pleased with Ayers’ decision.

“We intend to proceed with discovery to find out what we can about the com­mu­nications that occurred be­tween (Claire) Fiddian-Green and members of the board,” he said. “That will be our main focus over the next few weeks.”

Fiddian-Green runs the Cen­ter for Education and Car­eer Innovation, the alternative education agency that Gov. Mike Pence created last year. She is also a Board of Education staff member.

Zoeller spokesman Bryan Corbin said his office was reviewing the ruling.

“The Open Door Law is an important protection for Hoosiers,” he said. “The state will review the trial court’s ruling and determine the next steps to take in court by the appropriate deadlines.”

Indiana’s public access counselor, who reviews complaints regarding transparency and public records, wrote last year that the board members might not have technically violated the law but did violate the spirit of the law.

The original lawsuit filed by Ritz last year is among de­velopments that have contributed to the acrimony between Ritz, who chairs the board, and many of the other board members, who have been appointed by Indiana’s past two GOP governors.

Interactions with the U.S. Department of Education last month concerning Indiana’s exemption from federal education requirements reignited fighting between the two sides.

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