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Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

New Board, New Problems? A Shift In The SBOE Brings New Concerns

Members of the State Board of Education hear public comment at a spring 2015 meeting – the last before lawmakers reconstituted the board. (Photo Credit: Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

Members of the State Board of Education hear public comment at a spring 2015 meeting – the last before lawmakers reconstituted the board. (Photo Credit: Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

Starting June 1, half of the State Board of Education members ended their term, bringing five new faces to the board. 

Legislation the General Assembly passed this year allowed the governor and legislative leaders to immediately reconfigure the board. Gov. Pence, Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, announced their appointments last week, bringing optimism from many in the education community about an end to years of infighting.

Today, the new board meets for the first time, marking the beginning of a new era for a group whose previous disagreements dominated the past few years

A History Of SBOE Conflict

A handful of events can summarize why the State Board of Education needed a change.

“During the first few months of my board service literally I was sued,” says reappointed board member Gordon Hendry. “The superintendent, who’s the chair of the state board of education, walked out of a meeting thereby ending a board meeting – both of which have never happened in Indiana history.”

The fighting began when state superintendent Glenda Ritz joined the board as its chair, around the same time the state was facing huge education reforms: Indiana had recently adopted new academic standards, the charter school landscape was rapidly changing and the new school accountability system was measuring student success differently than before.

“All of that was unfortunate and it set a somewhat toxic environment for the board to consider some of the major issues that we have had to deal with,” Hendry says. “Very important issues have been considered within the context of these disputes.”

So lawmakers intervened and drafted Senate Bill 1, allowing the entire board to be replaced if the governor, Long and Bosma decided that was the best way to go. Instead, they replaced five members: Brad Oliver, Andrea Neal, Dan Elsener, Troy Albert and Tony Walker are out.

The new appointees are Lee Ann Kwaitkowski, Vince Bertram, Eddie Melton, Steve Yager and Byron Ernest. Along with Gordon Hendry, BJ Watts, Cari Whicker, Sarah O’Brien and David Freitas were also reappointed to the board.

Bringing Collaboration Back To The State Board

The new faces bring more experience from people who worked directly in a K-12 system. There are only three board members who don’t currently or haven’t at some time worked as an educator. Indiana University education policy researcher Ashlyn Nelson sees how that could be problematic.

“I think it is pretty helpful to actually have folks with on the ground experience helping to provide the local implementation context, but my fear is that they’re not using anything other than ideology and personal experience to inform those decisions,” Nelson says. “I just feel like they need to be more evidence based.”

How the new board approaches education issues will emerge over time, but everyone agrees how they approach their dealings with each other must change. New member Vince Bertram calls this a fresh start.

“I tend to look at that as a past tense. That’s something that happened and we’re all aware of it – we all read about it, we all lived it. But today’s a new opportunity. My focus is going to be on collaboration,” Bertram says.

Many of the new members agree the dysfunction with the previous board centered around procedural issues instead of debate over education policy.

Hendry says as a returning board member who lived through the ups and downs of the previous group, he understands there are more effective ways to interact with each other.

“We’re going to disagree on some things, but those disagreements don’t have to be personal,” Hendry says. “I think it’s actually good when there’s disagreements on the board because that helps us form the best policy possible and helps us improve the things that we’re moving forward.”

Statewide Politics Intruding On The Board

There’s one more twist in this saga. Even though most board members agree they want to focus on education in this new era, politics will still certainly come into play.

Current state superintendent and state board chair Glenda Ritz is entering the governor’s race. Nelson says it will be hard for a gubernatorial campaign not to interfere with her current role.

“I have no idea how she’s going to run a campaign for governor while also serving as state superintendent,” Nelson says. “But that will definitely heighten the political tensions on the board.”

Hendry shares Nelson’s concerns, but is more worried about political motives intruding on the “fresh start” the board has been presented.

“I am a Democrat so I am of the same party as superintendent Ritz,” he says. “We’ve tried to get politics out of the board so I think it’s probably going to be a challenge being that she’s going to be chairing state board meetings and potentially running against the existing governor who appointed a majority of the board members.”

 

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