November 25, 2013

THEIR VIEW: Editorial roundup


---- — Ritz, opponents need to declare cease fire

No challenges facing this state are more essential to confront and conquer than to improve student achievement, to provide access for all students to high-quality schools and to dramatically increase the education level of Indiana’s workforce.

Yet, for months the state leaders responsible for helping achieve those goals have been locked in a power struggle that’s become increasingly personal and partisan. It’s been deeply frustrating to watch as the fighting has escalated to the point of becoming a severe distraction from the critical work of improving our state’s schools.

The dysfunction sank to new depths this past week. First, Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz fired off a strongly worded letter to The Star and other media outlets accusing Gov. Mike Pence of attempting a hostile takeover of the Department of Education. Pence responded with his own letter to the media defending his actions. And Ritz unilaterally ended and walked out of a State Department of Education meeting because she objected to a motion introduced by a board member.

After Wednesday’s meltdown, both sides have spent the past few days criticizing their opponents and defending their own actions.

That approach — blaming and defending — will do nothing to help resolve this dispute. Worse, it will continue to waste time and energy on a sideshow that distracts from the need to improve our education system.

On Friday, Pence sent a letter to Ritz and the board urging them to seek meditation from a neutral party. That’s a reasonable idea in searching for a way forward. Unfortunately, Ritz rejected the proposal, and took the opportunity to take another shot at Pence.

To be sure, there are legitimate policy differences at play here. But any reasoned discussions about those differences have been overwhelmed by the political battle on display in recent days and weeks.

It’s time for a cease-fire. Time to set aside personal and partisan agendas. Time to stop flinging accusations and insults that only make this already bad situation worse.

Beyond a cooling-off period (and after what transpired this past week that can’t be rushed), the key players and their supporters need to focus on what they have in common rather than their differences.

For instance, it’s clear that Ritz and her team and Pence and his team all want to achieve the three goals outlined above — improve student achievement, provide more high-quality schools, strengthen skills in the workforce.

Although there are legitimate differences in philosophy, let’s unite around those goals and declare that differing opinions can’t be allowed to stop our state from progressing.

At the same time, both sides need to alter their attitudes and actions moving forward.

First, Republicans must get over the fact that they lost last year’s election for state superintendent. Ritz won, legitimately. And she has all the legal authority that comes with that victory.

Second, Ritz and her supporters need to accept that teacher accountability measures, the A-F school grading system, school vouchers, charters and standardized testing are all parts of state law. They don’t have to like those laws, but they do have to honor them. And Ritz, as state superintendent, has to do all in her ability to ensure those programs and policies work as intended.

Here’s the bottom line: Show respect. Respect for the person duly elected superintendent of public instruction, and respect for the office. Respect for the person elected governor, and for that office. Respect for the public servants appointed to the State Board of Education. Respect for the educators affected by state policies. Respect for the families also affected. And respect for the taxpayers who provide billions of dollars each year in the hope and trust that Indiana’s schools will one day excel.

But most of all respect the children of this state.

It’s their future that is at stake, and they deserve leaders who are committed to working well together in spite of differences, who won’t let personal and political differences derail what’s best for our students and our state.

— The Indianapolis Star

Funding may bring better understanding

Most local residents can’t fathom the expenditure of $350 million to $400 million to swamp Madison County businesses and homes with a reservoir.

So maybe understanding the nature of the proposed reservoir needs to come in dribbles.

And that’s a good way, too, to wade through the vast issues facing the proposal.

Last week, the state of Indiana awarded a $600,000 grant through its Revolving Fund loan program to the local Corporation for Economic Development of Anderson/Madison County, which has been spearheading the reservoir plan. The grant will be used to complete a second, and critical, feasibility study of the Mounds Lake project.

Work to be completed under the grant involves an environmental review, engineering study, determination of community impact and a financial estimate.

As most local folks know, the reservoir would cover 2,100 acres along the White River, stretching from 18th and East Lynn streets in Anderson back to Daleville. The reservoir would provide water reserves for Indianapolis and spots northeast of there.

Most of us will withhold our full support or disdain for the plan until this study is finished. But the study is crucial in understanding the huge impact this body of water will have on our lives. That is why it is important that the funding was found.

Naturally, Hoosiers would have preferred that such a project — whether feasible or a folly — would not have required state funds. The State Revolving Fund is a loan program that provides low-interest loans to communities for projects related to improving wastewater and drinking water infrastructures. The funds come thought capitalization grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Interest rates are typically under 4 percent.

So make no mistake: this study is not being funded by private capital. But since 2001, this county has received nearly $9 million from the State Revolving Fund drinking water program helping projects in communities from Orestes to Summitville to Ingalls as well as Alexandria, Anderson, Chesterfield and Elwood.

It’s too early to make a judgment but the awarding of $6000,000 will get us all closer to understanding the scope of an intriguing reservoir proposal.

In summary It’s too early to judge the merits of a proposed reservoir but a $600,000 grant may lead us to a better understanding the scope of the project.

— The Herald Bulletin, Anderson

Show compassion, but donate wisely

Photographs and videos showing the disaster wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines are nearly indescribable.

Buildings are leveled, with only a few concrete structures still standing, according to The Associated Press. The hard-hit city of Tacloban looks like a garbage dump, it reported.

The storm packed 147 mph winds and whipped up 20-foot walls of seawater that tossed ships inland and swept many people out to sea.

Thousands of people in the Philippines died in the massive storm, and at least 9.7 million people in 41 provinces were affected by the typhoon.

“I don’t believe there is a single structure that is not destroyed or severely damaged in some way — every single building, every single house,” U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy said after taking a helicopter flight over Tacloban, the largest city in Leyte province.

Our hearts go out to the people of the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia where the storm struck, just as we ached for the residents of Moore, Okla., earlier this year and to those in Henryville and other Hoosier communities last year when tornadoes struck.

We will be moved to help those in the Philippines (it’s our nature), just as many of us donated and volunteered to help in Henryville and Holton, where a former Seymour man was severely injured in the March 2, 2012, storms. He died earlier this year from those injuries.

Our assistance, however, should be done through organized charities focused on specific portions of rescue, cleanup and rehabilitation. Instead of loading a truck with shovels, buckets, boxes of used clothes and cases of bottled water to ship overseas, give money to organizations such as the International Red Cross, the United Nations and others that are on the scene helping victims sort out their lives.

In the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, the greatest need is for money to buy food and water and provide the makings of shelter. Donations made through international relief organizations can be pooled and put to best use. Supplies can be purchased in bulk and shipped in the most cost-effective way to ensure that they reach the people most in need.

If your gift isn’t needed immediately, it will be banked and used when the next disaster hits. Another way to help is to donate blood at an Indiana Blood Center or American Red Cross facility or a mobile donation drive. While the blood might not be needed in the Philippines, it will help restock depleted supplies or be used locally where there is an immediate need.

Disasters such as last week’s typhoon in the Philippines or last year’s tornadoes in southern Indiana prompt us to reach out and help. We encourage that.

The recovery process, as we have seen in southern Indiana, including our own recovery from the June 2008 flooding here in Jackson County, will take months and years. So there will be a continuing need for assistance for a significant time to come.

Your gifts are important. Just be careful how you donate.

— The Tribune, Seymour

An ethics test for Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett, who as Indiana’s state superintendent of public instruction just loved to give grades to students, teachers and schools, soon will get a grade of his own — on an ethics test.

Will he pass or fail? An A or an F?

The Indiana State Ethics Commission will be the one to grade Bennett’s work. On Jan. 9, 2014, that five-member body is scheduled to preside at a public hearing at which Bennett will essentially be on trial. He will have to defend himself against charges of breaking Indiana’s law about use of government property, staff, equipment and time for political purposes in his capacity as what the law calls a “state officer.”

In an ethics complaint filed Thursday, state Inspector General David O. Thomas, a former Clay County Prosecutor, contends that Bennett, while working as state superintendent and while running for re-election in 2012, “... used state computer systems, equipment and/or software to engage in political campaign and/or personal activity, including: Political campaign fundraising, responding to a political opponent’s assertions, scheduling campaign meetings, scheduling campaign telephone calls, and/or other political and/or personal activity, all in violation of 42 IAC 1-5-12.”

We quote all of that verbiage to show that this is not a slight ethical violation that is being alleged, not just a tiny slip or unintentional oversight. If the charges are valid and provable, they will have demonstrated a concerted, willful and organized effort by Bennett to use state property and personnel in his unsuccessful campaign for re-election.

For instance, fundraising lists, a donor call list and a database of some 6,500 Republican activists were reportedly found on state Department of Education computers after his successor, Glenda Ritz, took over the office. Those all could be seen to be tools for Bennett’s re-election. Bennett will have to prove the educational or administrative purposes for those data.

Also found was at least one email, written by Bennett to his staff, that directly attacks Ritz. “Below is a link to Glenda’s forum in Bloomington,” Bennett wrote on Aug. 28, 2012. “I would ask that people watch this and scrub it for every inaccuracy and utterance of stupidity that comes out of her mouth.” Bennett will have to prove that statement — most especially its cavalier “utterance of stupidity” comment — is not an attack on his political opponent and a direction to staff members to dig up dirt on her.

Bennett says the charges are all false, that he did nothing wrong. “I look forward to working with the Ethics Commission and the Inspector General’s office to demonstrate proper adherence to state rules and guidelines,” he said in a statement on Thursday.

The truth, we hope, will be determined at that Jan. 9 hearing and announced either that day or shortly thereafter — unless, as allowed by the ethics commission’s procedure, a negotiated settlement is reached and approved. The public would be better served, however, if the case against Bennett — and his defense — are played out in full public view. That would allow the public to know what grade Bennett deserves on this test.

— Tribune-Star, Terre Haute