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Last updated: Thu. Aug. 08, 2013 - 10:53 am EDT

Emails: Bennett shows dislike of Ritz

Signaled contempt for Fort Wayne, editorial writer

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INDIANAPOLIS — Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett was candid in his dislike for his Democratic opponent and Fort Wayne, emails from his state account show.

The Journal Gazette used a public records request to obtain hundreds of emails from Bennett’s account after an Associated Press article showed that he and his staff frantically worked to improve the accountability grade of a charter school from a C to an A.

As a result, Bennett resigned as Florida education commissioner last week. Attempts to reach him by phone and email for comments on this story were unsuccessful.

The emails include a number of demeaning or rude comments about Democratic opponent Glenda Ritz, who dealt him a stunning defeat on election night.

For instance, in a September email, a supporter asks Bennett for some difficult questions that can be posed to Ritz at a southern Indiana appearance.

Bennett provides a number of them, including on her lack of leadership experience.

The supporter later writes that he was unimpressed with Ritz’s performance, saying, “the responses Glenda provided were hard to follow and weren’t very structured.”

Bennett zinged back: “She is very weak! The rest of this week was worst as she tried to go ‘scorched earth’ at the school board association and special education conference.”

In an August email to several Indiana Department of Education staff members, Bennett includes a video of Ritz.

“Below is a link to Glenda’s forum in Bloomington … I would ask that people watch this and scrub it for every inaccuracy and utterance of stupidly that comes put of her mouth.”

State rules prohibit employees from conducting campaign work on state equipment or state time.

And in another email that Bennett did not respond to, a former state board member said he read an endorsement of Ritz for the election and “refrained from responding to their errors and omissions because the name recognition of your opponent is so low I thought it probably would be counterproductive.”

It also appears that Bennett had open contempt for Fort Wayne at times.

In one email exchange between him and a representative from a private education company, Bennett said, “I will not miss Fort Wayne … For a myriad of reasons.”

Then Michael Malone, of Edison Learning, responds, “of which the first six are named Karen.”

Karen Francisco, The Journal Gazette Editorial Page editor, sharply criticized Bennett during his four-year term.

Bennett’s response was “Maybe 11 of the first 12 are named Karen, but FWCS is also on that list.”

At another time, Bennett also vaguely refers to doubts about transparency in East Allen County Schools.

The emails also show Bennett’s reaction after his election night loss, including an expression of concern that newly elected Gov. Mike Pence will not prioritize education. Indeed, Pence’s slogan has been “job creation is job one.”

“Nor do I want my fear that in light of the fact that Mike has so many other issues on his plate during his first term that he can’t give this the attention and passion Mitch gave it over the past four years (which is my fear),” Bennett said. “I provide those to you only for the purpose that as I move on, you guys and Todd must keep ‘children as job 1’ in this state.”

Bennett’s account was crammed full of condolence-type emails after the loss, spreading from Indiana to many other states.

For instance, these words from East Noble Schools Superintendent Ann Linson: “I want to thank you for all you did for education and our students over the past four years. While I may not agree with everything and the light speed at which you moved (I move quick, but not as quick as you), at the end of the four years, you made a positive impact on moving Indiana students forward!”

And former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith said, “Visionary leadership is not always immediately recognized by voters. Congratulations on all you have done to raise the bar. Indiana kids suffered a setback but my guess is a national movement will have gained a participant.”

Other emailers weren’t as tactful, talking about the “insanity” of the election results and that “there is no good explanation except for the stupidity of the voters in our state.”

Bennett responded to dozens of these emails after a few days away with his wife in Florida to decompress and re-evaluate. At times, Bennett said, he was disappointed and stung from the loss and even cried while reading the emails.

One email came to Bennett just a few days before the election from a former State Board of Education member from Allen County.

In it, Steve Gabet, a former state legislator, reassures Bennett that he resigned from the board because he was no longer a teacher and that state rules require a minimum number of active public school employees on the board.

“I would like to reiterate my support of your educational policies,” Gabet wrote. He also suggested Bennett take a new and more effective look at his relationship with public school teachers after the election.

“I support your policies but believe a very large number of teachers have a mistaken view of who you are and the purpose of your initiatives. I think time and experience working with your programs will probably heal some ‘wounds’ but a more aggressive interaction could improve your image and, more importantly, the success of your mission.”

nkelly@jg.net


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