Ind. House Dem leader wants faster Bennett reviewOctober 16, 2013
By TOM LoBIANCO
INDIANAPOLIS — The inspector general’s inquiry into the grade-changing scandal is taking too long, a top House Democrat said Tuesday.
Inspector General David Thomas needs to explain what is happening with his investigation into grade changes that former school superintendent Tony Bennett made for a donor’s charter school, said House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, at a Statehouse news conference Tuesday.
The Associated Press published emails in July from Bennett and his staff showing a mad scramble last year to bump the Christel House charter school’s grade from a “C’’ to an “A.” Bennett resigned from a high-profile position as Florida’s schools chief a few days later.
A pair of legislative investigators took one month to determine how Bennett altered Indiana’s school-grading formula to benefit Christel House, but declined to look at political motivations. Christel DeHaan, the owner of the charter school, has been a prolific Republican donor, giving more than $2.9 million to Indiana Republicans since 1998.
“Why did they do it? Why did they pick the winner in advance?” Pelath asked about Christel House’s grade. “Somebody needs to answer that question.”
Pelath requested an update on the investigation in a letter he sent to Thomas on Tuesday.
He also pointed out that the inspector general’s office, which was created and appointed by former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, has spent much of its resources investigating low-level fraud in the past few years. Pelath questioned whether it had become a “dead letter office” for top-level ethics investigations.
Thomas declined Tuesday to discuss the specifics of any investigation, but said “We want to be very thorough and we will conclude it as quickly as we can.
Bennett’s speedy resignation caught many national education observers by surprise and left some wondering if more information was coming. A month later, the AP reported Republican Party fundraising lists had been discovered on state computers, including directions for what Bennett should seek on fundraising calls, in likely violation of state ethics laws.
Bennett has maintained he did nothing wrong in changing the grade for Christel House or having fundraising lists on state equipment.
No ethics charges have been filed against Bennett. However, the inspector general’s report is often the first step in any referral to a prosecutor, although Marion County prosecutor Terry Curry has the power to call his own investigation if he determines it is needed.
The legislative report completed last month by veteran Democratic analyst John Grew and veteran Republican analyst Bill Sheldrake explained how the grading formula was changed, but not why Bennett decided Christel House should receive an “A.”
The pair said the Bennett administration rushed to put out grades before the November election and said more transparency was needed in the school grading process, but they specifically pointed out their findings neither vindicate nor condemn Bennett.
The school grades, which are crucial in determining teacher pay and school funding, along with more indirect items like home values, are being rewritten by state education leaders now. A bipartisan panel is reviewing the grading formula and plans to submit recommendations to the state Board of Education, which must then approve a formula by Nov. 15.
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