INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A meeting that produced a new outline for grading Indiana schools turned chaotic Wednesday when the state's top education official stormed out, escalating an already testy battle with Republican Gov. Mike Pence.
Democratic Superintendent Glenda Ritz abruptly left the meeting of the state school board she chairs when a Pence appointee tried to transfer certain student assessment powers from her office to a second education department created by the governor earlier this year.
"This meeting is adjourned," Ritz said repeatedly, while packing her things and walking out. Department of Education staff quickly followed suit, while leaders of Pence's second education department and the other board members stayed put. It is unclear whether Ritz ended the meeting.
Before Ritz left, the board voted to approve new school grade categories and broadly accept the recommendations of a bipartisan panel formed in the wake of a scandal earlier this year. New categories for determining school letter grades were broadly laid out, but the board plans to work through next year filling in details.
Indiana's "A-F" school grading formula was investigated after an Associated Press report showed Ritz's predecessor, Tony Bennett, changed the rules to raise the grade of a political donor's charter school from a "C'' to an "A'' last year. Bennett resigned his job as Florida's schools chief amid the scandal.
Wednesday's vote was a rare moment of unity between Ritz and the other members of the board in an ongoing education war. Ritz accused Pence on Tuesday of conducting a "complete takeover" of education policy over the past month. A Pence spokeswoman responded to the accusation saying the governor has worked "in good faith" with her.
Ritz told reporters later Wednesday that she blamed Pence and his new education agency, the Center for Education and Career Innovation, not the other board members, for the continuing power struggle. "There's a lot of conflict, and I attribute it solely not to the members of the board actually, but to the CECI staff that have been hired to actually oversee my agency," Ritz said.
Pence apologized Wednesday for any "misunderstanding" with Ritz, but declined to answer her allegations he is usurping her power. "I regret the misunderstandings and the friction that has resulted from that on the State Board of Education. We'll be working through those issues in the days ahead," he said.
Both Pence and Ritz limited their exposure Wednesday: He took two questions before walking off, and she took four. At stake is control of Indiana's education system and the sweeping education changes put in place by Bennett and former Gov. Mitch Daniels. Indiana Republicans approved the nation's most sweeping school voucher law in 2011 and have expanded on it somewhat, in addition to dozens of other changes long sought by conservative education reformers.
Former Bennett staffers have accused Ritz of targeting Bennett with a series of public records releases. The Associated Press obtained campaign fundraising lists Bennett and his staff kept on state computers.
The other members of the state board, all of whom were appointed by Pence or Daniels, have accused Ritz of dragging her feet in implementing laws she openly campaigned against last year. Board meetings have become a political circus, with Ritz refusing to recognize board members and those members frequently talking over her. Lawyers for the competing Ritz and Pence education departments have even offered competing legal advice to the board, while jockeying for control of the sole microphone reserved for witnesses to the board.
After Ritz left Wednesday, another board member, Republican Brad Oliver, said he was withdrawing the motion that sparked the fight. The motion would have moved facets of the state's career and college prep testing to Pence's second education department.
"I don't want to exacerbate this," Oliver said. Oliver later withdrew his motion after Ritz left, although it is unclear if the meeting was still underway.