The Republican-dominated House Monday passed a measure taking power away from Democratic State Superintendent Glenda Ritz. She could lose control of the State Board of Education as early as this summer.
The proposal would allow Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s appointed board members to elect their own chairman, removing Ritz from her current position in that role. Until now, Indiana law automatically gave responsibility to the superintendent of public instruction.
Legislative Democrats continued to maintain the proposal is politically motivated and undermines the decision of voters who elected Ritz in 2012.
In the 58-40 vote to pass the bill, a dozen Republicans broke rank and voted against it. If the Senate passes it too and Pence signs it into law, the change would take effect July 1.
The measure was prompted by the well-known friction between Ritz and Republican board members, who frequently argue over control of the education policy during the past two years.
House Speaker Brian Bosma said he has never seen a more dysfunctional system and the bill is a necessary change.
Conflict includes Ritz ending one board meeting abruptly after ruling a member’s motion out of order and walking out. She later sued the other members of the board, claiming they violated state public access laws when they sought to move calculation of the A-F school grades to legislative analysts.
Ritz supporters assert that the disputes have been spawned by Pence’s appointees who want control over programs on teacher evaluation, private school vouchers and the state takeover of poorly performing schools.
“Just because somebody disagrees with you doesn’t mean you need to stomp on them or make sure their voices are muzzled,” said House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.
Many of these programs were championed by former Superintendent Tony Bennett, who Ritz unseated in 2012 after receiving more supporting votes than Gov. Pence.
Ritz supporters expressed their concerns about the bill on social media over the weekend, causing (hash)IStandForRitz to become a top trending hashtag in Indianapolis on Sunday. Thousands of tweets said removing Ritz from power would be ignoring the 51 percent of voters who elected her to lead education policy.
State Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, who is sponsoring the legislation, said the bill would ensure that the State Board of Education goes back to operating with “a functional governance procedure” and is not meant to be an attack on democracy.
But Democrats insisted the move was a “power grab” aimed at the only Democrat who holds an office in the Statehouse.
“The so-called dysfunction is not a clash of personalities. This is about a clash of policies,” said Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington. “You can’t pretend that it’s just some attempt to make people play nice.”
Pence called last month for the change to allow the board to pick its own chairman. The longtime state law has been that the superintendent of public instruction, who is elected statewide, is the chairman of the Board of Education, and the other 10 members are appointed by the governor.