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Posted on Sun. Nov. 24, 2013 - 12:30 am EDT

Lawmakers may get pulled into bureaucratic feud over education

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INDIANAPOLIS — A civil war has broken out in Indiana’s education bureaucracy.

House Speaker Brian Bosma let that honest assessment slip last week during a legislative luncheon preview.

“I think everyone just needs to take a deep breath and focus on the mutual goal of advancing education improvement,” he said later. “Standing in corners and lobbing incendiary devices doesn’t get the job done.”

He was talking about the growing feud between Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and GOP Gov. Mike Pence, over Pence’s newly created education agency.

Between the two is the State Board of Education – a bipartisan panel of appointments charged with determining the state’s educational policy.

Lawmakers are feeling pressure to step into the debate.

“When we come back in January and things are bogged down still, or people still mistrust each other enough they can’t work together, then we’ll have to do something to move some of these policies forward,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

“But again, that’s something we want to leave to the board and the Department of Education, to the governor’s office, if possible. That’s what I’m looking for, and I fully expect that to happen.”

The board and Ritz are embroiled in writing new A-F school accountability rules and evaluating whether to shift away from Common Core standards, to name a few major issues.

Just after Ritz was elected in November – defeating GOP favorite Tony Bennett – talk began about how she would negotiate the position surrounded by Republicans.

There were some initial legislative attempts to thwart her authority in a few areas that were tempered.

But behind the scenes, funding for the State Board of Education – which had always resided with the Indiana Department of Education – was shifted.

Ritz runs the department and chairs the board.

Then in August, the big bombshell hit that seemed to tilt everything. Pence created the Center for Education and Career Innovation, using an executive order instead of the legislative process that would have included input from all sides.

The purpose was to bring together education and career-training efforts with a budget cobbled together from various agencies Pence oversees – about $5 million annually.

So far, the agency has hired 16 employees, including several directly staffing the State Board of Education. Others are focusing more on jobs skills.

A handful of center staff – including a few from Bennett’s administration – make more than $100,000, with others making near that amount.

Even the titles are the same in some cases. For instance, the center has a director of accountability and assessments, just like the Department of Education.

The salaries of the employees are hard to follow. On the state’s transparency portal, none of them are listed as being paid by the new agency. Instead, the director of the State Board of Education, for instance, is paid through the Indiana Charter School Board.

And a number of employees receive more than $330,000 in cumulative salary from the Education Employment Relations Board. The board’s task, by law, is to be an intermediary between schools and union bargaining units during contract negotiations.

State Budget Director Brian Bailey said now that the center is set up, the Education Employment Relations Board will be reimbursed and none of its funding will have been redirected to the Center for Education and Career Innovation.

The existence of the new agency and its growing involvement with the State Board of Education has led to a tug of war with Ritz on such issues as how meeting agendas are crafted, dueling legal advice and differences of opinion on how Common Core standards should be reviewed and evaluated.

The tension boiled over in both a lawsuit filed by Ritz against the board – it has been dismissed – and repeated clashes during meetings on procedure.

Lou Ann Baker, spokeswoman for the center, said the board is not trying to take authority away from Ritz or the department. But she noted that after months of non-responses from Department of Education staff, mistrust was built, and the board is being more proactive.

“The board just wants to be informed,” she said.

David Galvin, director of communications for the Department of Education, said neither Ritz nor her staff was ever consulted about the new education agency.

“It’s pretty clear to me we should be assisting the board,” he said. “Our team has the expertise, and we collect, house and manage the data.”

He said the center is a redundant agency with questionable funding that “has caused an immense amount of conflict” because no one clearly understands its role.

Some have suggested there are legal questions about how far an executive order can go if it infringes on another constitutional statewide officer or state agency.

And lawmakers might have to step in and codify the existence of the agency with more clear budget and authority lines.

Galvin also said he has seen a draft for the legislative session that would give the board control over student and school data.

It is just one of many legislative efforts that could occur. The most direct would be to change the office of superintendent of public instruction from elected to an appointed position by the governor.

Bosma said he has supported that change since 1985. But he conceded that now may not be the time because it would be seen as a political maneuver.

He noted that several former superintendents did not get along with governors, and “somehow we were able to muddle through without a big public brouhaha.”

Other possibilities include removing the superintendent as chair of the state board.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he supports her staying as an elected official and as chair.

“I’m more of an out-front person,” he said of various smaller ways the General Assembly could intervene.

“She wants to obey the law, and we should encourage and allow her to do the job.”

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