- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The Republican-dominated Indiana Legislature has taken the first step toward removing the Democratic state schools superintendent from being the automatic State Board of Education chairman.

A bill filed Tuesday would allow Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s appointees to the Board of Education to elect their own chairman, most likely ousting schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz from the position. The bill - which Democrats say is a political attack on Ritz - would take effect upon being signed to law by Pence.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said the board’s frequent fights with Ritz over control of the education policy during the past two years make the change necessary.

“You can point fingers either way, but the fact of the matter is that it’s not working and that’s not good for education in Indiana,” Long said. “We have to change that. So we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the best way to do it.”

Pence called last month for the change to allow the board to pick its own chairman. The longtime state law has been that the superintendent of public instruction, who is elected statewide, is the chairman of the Board of Education, whose other members are appointed by the governor.

Ritz is the only Democrat holding a Statehouse office after upsetting then-Superintendent Tony Bennett, a Republican, in the 2012 election.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said he considered the bill a “blatant political attack” on Ritz’s authority.

Lanane said the current system has worked during times when the governor was a Democrat and the schools superintendent was a Republican.

“We’ve been able to work it out in the past,” he said. “I think this will be viewed in a very political way.”

The bill also would allow the board to hire its own staff independent of the Department of Education, which Ritz leads.

Other provisions would remove the requirement that no more than six board members be from one political party and that at least four members be active teachers. Another proposed change would have the governor appoint eight members, with the House and Senate leaders each making one appointment. The schools superintendent would remain a board member.

Long said those proposals are among several ideas for changing the board’s makeup and could be changed in the coming weeks.

Another bill filed in the Senate would turn the schools superintendent position into one appointed by the governor starting in 2021. That would come at the end of the four-year term for whoever is elected to that office in 2016.

Long said he expected the Senate will act on that proposal soon.

The proposal for changes to the State Board of Education has been given the designation as Senate Bill 1 and assigned a committee that Long leads - signs that it is a top priority for Senate Republicans.

“I really fear for our ability to make progress on all of our efforts … if we don’t get this problem fixed,” Long said. “I think this is the way to do it.”

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