Indiana

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Public Access Counselor: A-F State Board Letter Didn’t Violate Open Door Law

State superintendent Glenda Ritz prepares to chair the November 13, 2013, meeting of the State Board of Education.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz chairs the Nov. 13, 2013, State Board of Education.

The 10 appointed members of the State Board of Education did not violate Indiana’s Open Door Law in signing a letter to legislative leaders last month, the state’s public access counselor ruled Monday.

Read the full opinion here.

“Even through email, a perceived proactive ratification of an action concerning public interest is leaning against the public policy intentions of openness and transparency, but it cannot definitively be considered a violation of the Open Door Law as the legislature intended,” Public Access Counselor Luke Britt wrote in his advisory opinion.

Tensions between the State Board and State Superintendent Glenda Ritz had been escalating for months when the 10 appointed members asked state lawmakers to intervene in the issuing of A-F letter grades for schools, accusing the Department of Education of dragging its feet.

Ritz filed suit against the other board members, all of whom signed the letter, alleging a violation of Indiana’s Open Door Law. But a Marion County judge threw out the lawsuit, ruling only the attorney general could take the case to court.

That’s when four citizens, including two former school superintendents, filed a complaint with the Public Access Counselor. But Britt says there wasn’t enough evidence to conclude a secret meeting of the State Board took place. Still, differing from the format of a typical Advisory Opinion, he wrote that “the perception of the public” remains critically important.

“While email discussion and deliberation are excluded from serial meetings as not being violative, final decisions are meant to be open and transparent,” Britt writes. “In the future, the Board should be aware of these considerations. This is not meant to chill the exchange of ideas amongst public agencies, but to be dutiful to the ongoing pursuit of governmental accountability and accessibility.”

Superintendent Ritz and Governor Mike Pence met Tuesday to discuss the ongoing tension between the Department of Education and the new agency housing State Board staff, the Center for Education and Career Innovation.

After that meeting, Ritz told reporters both she and Pence had called the meeting but did not discuss specifics. She said she hadn’t had a chance to read the public access counselor’s opinion yet.

This post may be updated.

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