Tony Bennett Targeted by His Successor in Indiana, Glenda Ritz
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It was Tony Bennett's successor in Indiana, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, formerly head of the teachers union in Washington Township schools, who turned over Bennett's entire Outlook file -- six months of emails, four years of calendar items, everything -- to Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco, according to two of Ritz's employees.
Ritz beat Bennett in the 2012 Indiana general election, becoming the first Democrat to win the job in 42 years. He had been a favorite of former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and the GOP-controlled Legislature.
"I think the idea was to destroy what Tony stands for by tainting him with a little dirt," the second employee added, saying what offended Ritz was his hard-driving agenda of charters, vouchers and high-stakes testing.
The employees confirmed that LoBianco had been working on a story connecting political figures, including Bennett, and had submitted a Freedom of Information request for the former superintendent's email.
In 2012, Bennett changed the grade for a donor's charter school. Critics said his emails showed that he and his staff "frantically overhauled" Indiana's grading system to give the school, Christel House, an "A" instead of a "C"; Bennett insisted Christel House, like four other schools, had been misgraded because vital information hadn't been taken into account; the grades of all five schools were necessarily adjusted. The AP story caused a firestorm and on Aug. 1 Bennett resigned his position in Florida, saying the story would present too much of a distraction for Sunshine State leaders if he stayed.
An Indiana Legislature-commissioned report on Friday said Bennett's explanations are plausible, that he and his staff were overburdened by the complexities of creating an "A-F" school grading system and rushed the answers out before they were ready.
In their 58-page report, John Grew and Bill Sheldrake, whom LoBianco calls "two veterans of Democratic and Republican administrations," concluded that the report does not 'vindicate' Bennett, but neither does it condemn him. They said it finds that "the two adjustments administered to determine Christel House Academy's final grade were plausible and the treatment afforded to the school was consistently applied to other schools with similar circumstances."
LoBianco would neither confirm nor deny the Ritz employees' story, saying AP has a policy against their reporters granting interviews on their work.
Ritz's involvement in the story doesn't surprise Cam Savage, who worked for Bennett at the Department of Education, is a principal at Limestone Strategies in Terre Haute, Ind., and a veteran of numerous Republican campaigns. He writes this:
"How did the AP acquire these emails in the first place? The AP stories indicate the emails came through public records requests. But how did the reporter know which records to request? Is this distinguished journalism or just the by-product of old-school political leaking?"
When asked if the Bennett grade-changing scandal had been gifted to LoBianco by Glenda Ritz, Paul Colford, director of AP media relations, provided a written statement: "It was strong AP reporting that led to our stories on Mr. Bennett and any suggestion otherwise would be incorrect."
According to his bio, LoBianco, 32, is a 2004 graduate of the University of Maryland, where he majored in journalism. He has a master's degree in political science from Northeastern University in Boston. There he served as a research assistant to former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Before joining AP, he spent two years covering politics in Maryland and Washington for the conservative newspaper The Washington Times, reporting on military issues and the confirmation hearings of future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Ritz was among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit zealously challenging the private-school voucher law, which began in Indiana in 2011. She argued that it is both improper and unconstitutional for state tax dollars to flow to private schools, and she said in a media interview during the election campaign that the last straw propelling her into the superintendent's race was the establishment of a high-stakes reading test, with students repeating a grade level if their reading skills are substandard.
Ritz was not available for comment late Monday. David Galvin, her director of communications, said Tuesday morning, "We have no comment."
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