INDIANAPOLIS — Welcome to Indiana's own "Cold War," a tit-for-tat fight over education more akin to something out of Dr. Seuss' "The Butter Battle Book" than high-brow statesmanship.
Democratic Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz surprised watchers last week when she released an internal memo, drafted by Republican Gov. Mike Pence's education aides, that pondered ways to curb her control of the State Board of Education. Pence's staff said he dismissed the idea in a private meeting with her last month, but Ritz's staff said their concern is with Pence's new education agency.
Anywhere else in state government, that conflict might be somewhat shocking. But it's become the norm for education as Democrats control the Department of Education and Republicans control the governor's office. And both sides of the fight have contributed to the continuing escalation.
Even before Ritz released the Pence team's education memo last week, the education board held a terse meeting with a mediator called in from the National Association of State Boards of Education. And even before that meeting, both sides had escalated the fight: Board members accused Ritz of trying to hold a closed meeting, but Ritz said it was Pence's idea. Before that, there was an agenda item that spurred Ritz's walkout, and before that was Ritz's lawsuit against the other members of the board.
And before that ... well, the list goes on.
Publicly, Pence seems to be oblivious that his new Center for Education and Career Innovation remains at the core of Ritz's problems.
"I was disappointed with the outcome of yesterday's State Board of Education meeting. I continue to remain committed to working with all the members of the State Board of Education to resolve their differences," Pence said Thursday when asked about the memo drafted by CECI staffers.
And Ritz has an almost allergic inability to deal with anyone other than Pence, even as state board members air lists of problems working with her.
"I will say that the CECI, we actually have a document that says that their goal is to remove me as the chair in the legislative session. And, if not that way, then doing it through the board operating procedures," Ritz said after the board meeting that was nominally called to work on relations between her and other board members.
At the core is control over key parts of the state's education system. The governor appoints the State Board of Education members, who have broad rule-making authority, but Ritz chairs the board. Ritz, meanwhile, administers the state's $6.6 billion K-12 education budget. But lawmakers write the legislation, including the school-funding formula, which sets the parameters on how it's spent.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has said lawmakers may need to step into the state's continuing education battle but that he would prefer to avoid the fight. Even if lawmakers do weigh in, he has flatly ruled out stripping Ritz of any power over the board.
"We're doing our best — both (Senate President Pro Tem David) Long and myself — to encourage dialogue and encourage open communication," he said last week.
Bosma noted that governors and superintendents with opposing viewpoints have often found ways to work together before. Bosma started his career working with former Republican School Superintendent H. Dean Evans, who had to work with then-Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh. He also noted that former Gov. Mitch Daniels used to find ways to work with former Schools Superintendent Suellen Reed, although he leaves out the part where Daniels recruited Tony Bennett to oust Reed and push the education agenda he sought.
It's unclear whether this fight will get better or worse in the coming weeks and months. If this were a Seussian tale, Ritz and Pence may indeed be perched on either side waiting to drop their own nuclear bomb. Of course, some might say Pence's inter-office memo and Ritz's release of it count as their respective bomb blasts.
More than a few eyebrows are already singed, without a doubt.