- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Democratic state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz could lose her automatic position as State Board of Education leader under a GOP-backed bill a House committee passed Thursday.

The House Education Committee voted 8-4 to advance the proposal that would allow the board to choose its own chairman, likely ousting Ritz from the position that the elected state superintendents have automatically filled for more than a century.

The measure was prompted by well-known friction between Ritz - the only Democrat controlling a Statehouse office - and the 10 other board members, appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Pence.

Supporters say it’s a necessary and much-needed change to address a “dysfunctional board” that has struggled over control of education policy.

“The governor has repeatedly asked that we get back to business,” said Pence’s education policy director Chad Timmerman. “We think that allowing the board to select its own chair is a good step in that direction.”

Ritz ended one board meeting abruptly after ruling a member’s motion out of order and walked out. She later sued the other members of the board, claiming they violated state public access laws when they sought to move calculation of the A-F school grades to legislative analysts.

Ritz supporters say that the disputes have been spawned by Pence’s appointees who want control over programs on teacher evaluation, private school vouchers and the state takeover of poorly performing schools.

Many programs at the epicenter of these arguments were championed by former Superintendent Tony Bennett, who Ritz unseated after receiving more supporting votes than Gov. Pence.

“The voters had made it clear that they did not agree with Superintendent Bennett,” said Vic Smith, of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education. “According to this bill, the voters are wrong.”

Opponents call the change a political power grab that shifts power away from the voters who elected Ritz in 2012 and tips it into the hands of Pence and his appointees.

John Barnes, a spokesman for state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education said the bill was “a product of a very bad political decision,” that would dismantle a system of checks and balances between elected and appointed members of the board.

The few lawmakers who voted against the proposal urged committee members to look for another solution rather than driving a wedge between state education leaders.

“It is our job as leaders to do everything we can to keep those schisms from happening,” said Democratic Rep. Terri Austin. “I hope that we think seriously about how we can resolve this issue other than just trying to move deck chairs around on the Titanic.”

Changes adopted Thursday would increase the board’s size from 11 to 13 members. The two additional board members would be selected by the House speaker and Senate pro tem. A similar proposal pending in the Senate would keep the current structure and lawmakers need to work out a common version by the end of the legislative session.

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