Glenda Ritz, Board of Education spar over struggling schools

How to deal with failing schools and who should have the authority to do so has dominated the debate so far at the Indiana State Board of Education meeting taking place Wednesday.

The Education Board has proposed moving up the time line to intervene at schools after four annual reports of Ds or Fs, when the current policy allows intervention only after six consecutive years of Fs. As a last resort, the board also may consider asking for the authority to put an entire school district under state intervention.

One of the State Board of Education’s suggestions discussed at Wednesday’s meeting was to create a dedicated state turnaround office.

But State Superintendent of Education Glenda Ritz said the Indiana Department of Education, which she oversees, already has a Division of Outreach with 23 employees that already handles that function.

“I am all about this. This is my job,” Ritz said. “This is what we do at the Department of Education.”

Brad Oliver, a Board of Education member, then asked Ritz what assurances she could provide that that the Division of Outreach aligns with SBOE goals.

“I have the authority,” Ritz said to Oliver in response. “I don’t know why the board would want to change what we’re doing that I just implemented.”

“It’s the (Education) Department’s role to do school improvements, so schools don’t need to come to the Board of Education for intervention,” she said.

The heated exchanges between Ritz, a Democrat elected by voters, and SBOE board members, most of whom have been appointed by a Republican governor, were typical of the meeting at the Indiana Government Center South, Conference Room B, 302 W. Washington St.

Ritz also complained that she didn’t have an opportunity to chime in on the Board of Education’s turnaround committee.But board member Daniel Elsener disputed Ritz’ contention that she wasn’t allowed to share that information. “We would’ve given you the chance to speak,” he said.

And Ritz accused Board of Education members of trying to usurp her authority.

“You’re really recommending that the State Board of Ed become the state’s education agency” in place of IDOE, she said.

Interventions with lead partners at struggling schools, such as John Marshall and Broad Ripple High Schools in Indianapolis, have been coming under scrutiny regarding their effectiveness. Instead, the State Board of Education’s turnaround committee may consider expanding the interventions that can be used, including creating a district “Transformation Zone,” as inspired by Evansville Vanderburgh Community Schools.

The Education Board also could consider moves to extend an Indianapolis Public Schools initiative called 1321 to any district with at least one failing school. It allows a management company — whether it’s the district itself or a charter operator — to overhaul a struggling public school with an independently run model that’s still held to accountability measures.

There also were plans to discuss the Indiana Department of Education’s virtual learning policy. While the department is allowing school districts to use e-learning instead of taking snow days, state board member Brad Oliver is asking for further discussions and legislative guidance on virtual options.

“We have no business” reducing school days, Elsener said. “It may be convenient in the short-term … but that’s not leadership.”

Regarding its other legislative priorities, the Board of Education may try to smooth the process of calculating A-F grades as well as adopt pre-kindergarten standards and recommend continued state funding for the pre-K pilot starting in 2015.

Call Star reporter Stephanie Wang at (317) 444-6184. For live meeting updates, follow her on Twitter: @stephaniewang.