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State Board of Education settles open door suit with $16,000 payment

INDIANAPOLIS - The State Board of Education on Wednesday agreed to pay about $16,000 in attorney fees and court costs to settle a lawsuit over whether it violated open door law via private email communication.

"Given the length of time since the actions in question occurred and the costs involved in continuing to pursue the lawsuit, the plaintiffs agreed to abandon further legal action," a news release said.

"Although the board made no admission of improper conduct, the plaintiffs believe that the board’s agreement to pay attorney fees and court costs speaks for itself."

Four Hoosiers, including a Fort Wayne Community Schools board member, filed suit last year over an alleged Open Door violation by the board.

At-Large State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry said it's "unfortunate that a frivolous lawsuit like this one wasted so much time and energy that would have been better spent focusing on the needs of Indiana’s students.

"The most important thing to take away from this agreement is that no violation of the Open Door law occurred, and this case is permanently laid to rest."

The citizen group narrowly lost a ruling on the issue by the Indiana public access counselor, then took the case to a judge. FWCS member Julie Hollingsworth is one of the plaintiffs.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz initially filed the same case but it was dismissed on a legal technicality and a court did not rule on the suit's merits.

The lawsuit centers on a letter the State Board of Education sent in October 2013 asking legislative leaders to intervene in a dispute over issuing A-F school accountability grades.

The letter was not discussed in an open meeting of the board. It was drafted by staff of the administratively created Center for Education and Career Innovation and emailed around.

All members of the board - except Ritz - signed on. She was not included in the email chain as chair of the panel.

The lawsuit alleges that the letter constituted "official action" by the board and was done outside of an open meeting with notice to the public.

"The aforementioned actions, as well as other actions that may subsequently come to light through discovery, violated both the letter and the spirit of the (Open Door Law)," the suit said.

The plaintiffs said in a press release that the General Assembly needs to address the issue raised.

"The use of emails to conduct the public’s business creates a risk that public officials will engage in private debate and discussion on matters that belong at public meetings subject to public scrutiny," the release said.

Hendry also said he would welcome a conversation with the legislature on transparency.

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