Bennett ethics case a fitting backdrop for Ritz-board spat

It’s an interesting coincidence that news broke of a settlement between Tony Bennett and the State Ethics Commission just as a another dispute between Glenda Ritz – Bennett’s successor as Indiana superintendent of public instruction – and the State Board of Education may be exploding.

The ethics commission opened an investigation of Bennett last year after Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco disclosed emails that show Bennett directed staff to do political work on state time. We won’t know details until Thursday, but Bennett’s high-powered lawyers announced the deal, so it’s likely he’ll face a wrist-slap or less.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s state board meeting could be the ugliest yet in a series marked by nearly open warfare between the elected Democratic state superintendent and the 10 board members appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Pence. On the agenda:

  • A resolution that criticizes Ritz for her handling of Indiana’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law and seeks to elbow her aside for purposes of responding to a federal critique.
  • A proposal to change procedures so the state board and its staff, not just Ritz, will determine the time, place and agenda items for board meetings.
  • An item that says “initiate rulemaking on accountability.” This could mean almost anything, but one possibility is prescribing how schools evaluate teachers.

Ritz’s supporters, including the Indiana State Teachers Association, have been rallying the troops to attend the meeting and back the superintendent. Ritz issued a statement on the NCLB resolution, saying she’s asked Pence to pull it and warning it “will place our waiver in serious jeopardy.”

If board members tear into Ritz, it will bring to mind what Bennett told his staffers in one of the emails that led to the ethics investigation: “Below is a link to Glenda’s forum in Bloomington. It is 1:35 minutes. I would ask that people watch this and scrub it for every inaccuracy and utterance of stupidity that comes out of her mouth.”

The board may not call Ritz “stupid.” But read the over-the-top criticism in the board’s NCLB resolution. Watch some members’ body language and listen to their tone of voice as they respond to her and to the public. Ritz’s supporters will detect a clear message of “How dare this woman – this woman – try to tell us how to run the state’s schools?”

No doubt Ritz and the board have legitimate differences over policy. But there’s also a current of politics running through their disagreements. As Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education writes: “It is hard to know whether opponents are still fighting the election of 2012 or preparing positions for the election of 2016 by trying to make Superintendent Ritz look weak.”

Ritz’s critics – and especially Bennett loyalists – would argue politics have been played on both sides. They blame Ritz and her staff for disclosing the emails that led to the ethics investigation and cost Bennett his job as Florida commissioner of education.

It’s hard to imagine these two sides will kiss and make up any time soon.

 

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