Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz was no doubt sending a message that she doesn’t intend to be pushed around when she sued the State Board of Education this week for violating the state’s Open Door Law. She may not win in court. But whether she gains anything by suing is another question.
The lawsuit also calls attention to an issue with the Open Door Law, which says the public’s business should be conducted in meetings that are open to the public. It’s a good law. But if governing bodies are determined to act in secret, they can find ways to do it.
At issue is the State Board of Education’s Oct. 16 letter to Indiana House and Senate leaders asking them to direct the Legislative Services Agency to calculate A-to-F grades for Indiana schools, something normally done by staff at Ritz’s Department of Education.
Ten of the 11 board members signed the letter. Ritz, who chairs the board, said she wasn’t told of the letter until it was delivered. She sued on Tuesday, alleging the other board members conducted an illegal secret meeting to draft and sign the letter.
Tension between Ritz and board members has been growing for months, and the letter and lawsuit take it to a new level. And the Department of Education news release announcing the suit suggests Ritz sees the board’s efforts to undercut her authority as being encouraged by Gov. Mike Pence, who appoints the board members. The headline says Ritz sues “Governor Pence’s State Board of Education.”
The lawsuit says that drafting, signing and sending a letter aimed at shaping education policy clearly constitutes official action – something that, according to the law, is supposed to happen in public meetings. But the problem, from a legal standpoint, is that the Open Door Law defines a meeting as a gathering of three or more members. Board members claim they didn’t “gather” but drafted, discussed and signed the letter via email.
If that’s so, Hoosier State Press Association lawyer Steve Key tells State Impact Indiana, it could be hard to persuade a judge that an illegal meeting took place. But IU journalism professor Gerry Lanosga, president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government, tells the Indy Star the emails should be considered an “electronic meeting” that took place in violation of the law.
Pence issued a statement supporting the board and insisting “all relevant Indiana laws were followed.” But even if board members didn’t violate the letter of the law, they thumbed their noses as its spirit:
It is the intent of this chapter that the official action of public agencies be conducted and taken openly, unless otherwise expressly provided by statute, in order that the people may be fully informed. The purposes of this chapter are remedial, and its provisions are to be liberally construed with the view of carrying out its policy.
It’s disappointing to hear Pence and state board members argue, in effect, that it’s just fine to do the state’s business in secret. We’re talking about education, after all. It’s not too much to expect that the board deliberate and make decisions in public.