Glenda Ritz is standing in front of a room full of people who herald her as a savior.
The state superintendent of public instruction promises to keep education a priority in the midst of her campaign for reelection.
“We have a lot of work to do, and I’m ready to get going,” she says to the crowd at the gala, which was put on by the Monroe County Democratic Party.
“I love her,” says a mom in the audience at the Fountain Square Ballroom. Earlier, she apologized for missing one of Ritz’s fundraisers.
“My kids were throwing up,” she explained.
Four years after winning an upset election against Tony Bennett, Ritz seeks reelection in November. As of April 15, her total cash on hand is $355,000, according to her campaign website — already more money than her campaign came up with in the entirety of 2012.
But her term as superintendent was tumultuous and riddled with challenges from Republican politicians who stripped her authority.
Ritz says Gov. Mike Pence will never stop trying to thwart her.
In one of his first acts as governor, Pence removed the superintendent from control of the Educational Employment Relations Board. He used his executive authority to create — and then later, to dissolve — a new committee, which duplicated some of her work and transferred responsibilities.
The Indiana House Education Committee voted to allow the State Board of Education to elect its own chair, rather than be headed by Ritz per tradition.
In defense of the decision, Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, R-Fort Wayne, dismissed Ritz’s credentials.
“In all fairness,” he said in January 2015, “Superintendent Ritz was a librarian, OK?”
In the last four years, Ritz has grown to be one of the most revered and beloved Indiana politicians by teachers and education advocates around the state.
But being the first Democrat to serve as superintendent since 1973 — not to mention a Democrat in a state with a majority Republican legislature — she is surrounded by colleagues who tried to take her authority to make changes in schools.
While she has a heavy and loyal following with parents and teachers across Indiana, she has been surrounded by a state government that has repeatedly blocked her agenda.
One of Ritz’s supporters, Teresa Meredith, who worked with her on the Indiana State Teacher’s Association, said Long’s comment was completely unfounded. Ritz is so much more than just a librarian, Meredith said.
Ritz’s campaign manager, Annie Mansfield, said she expects the opposition to launch smear campaigns soon.
She runs uncontested in the Democratic primary. In the general elections she will face one of two Republican candidates: Dawn Wooten, a college-level English instructor at IU-Purdue University Indianapolis Fort Wayne, and Jennifer McCormick, the Yorktown Community Schools superintendent.
Ritz’s skeptics say she was only able to pull off the 2012 win because voters were anti-Tony Bennett, who, during his tenure as superintendent, emphasized school voucher programs, merit pay and charter school growth — policies generally unpopular with Indiana teachers.
As superintendent, Ritz has helped Indiana be the first state to pull out of Common Core standards. She’s pushed for legislation that will replace ISTEP. She’s worked on increasing student literacy.
Sherry Watkins likens Ritz to the Energizer Bunny.
She somehow never runs out of steam, said Watkins, a retired teacher who has known Ritz for about 30 years. The two got to know each other working together in the Washington Township Education Association.
At first, Watkins said she was worried Ritz and her husband were too wide-eyed.
“They were both quite young then,” Watkins said. “She sure proved me wrong very quickly.”
People appreciate Ritz’s tenacity, Watkins said.
In an interview with the Indiana Daily Student, Ritz attributed this tenacity to a passion for equity through education, a passion rooted in her own childhood.
She grew up with a modest income, she said — people would have probably called them poor. But she said she knew education was going to change her life, and she had no intention of staying at home.
Every summer, she worked two or three jobs, one of which always involved children. The goal was to pay for college, she said, and she wasn’t letting anything stop her — not even the discouraging words of a foreman at a factory job, who looked at her 4’11” frame and said, “What am I gonna do with you?”
“I can do things,” she replied.
She graduated from Ball State University and went job searching in the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township. She called the special education director every week for months to ask if there were openings. Her persistence was rewarded when the director told her there was one.
Since then, she’s taught special education students and gifted students. She’s been in elementary, middle and high schools. She’s led as president of the Washington Township Education Association and a board member of the Indiana State Teachers Association. She’s been named teacher of the year and has been a National Board-certified teacher.
Most recently, before becoming superintendent, Ritz worked as a media specialist at Crooked Creek Elementary, where her library was the hub of the building.
Her kids were mesmerized by her, said Marsha Reynolds, principal of Crooked Creek at the time. Ritz was the kind of teacher every principal and every kid wishes they had, Reynolds said.
In her library, Reynolds said Ritz taught seven classes a day and even took her lunchtime to sit with four or five struggling students.
She gave 150 percent all the time and parents loved her, Reynolds said.
She showed classic movies on Fridays. She brought her kids Chinese artifacts after travelling there for a global teaching partnership. On Halloween, she told every class to carve a book character into a pumpkin.
When she felt her students’ learning was endangered by standardized tests, she said she knew it was time to move on to something new. The IREAD-3 was the last straw for her.
“Mrs. Ritz, I don’t need to check out a book because I just passed my IREAD-3 test,” a little girl said to her the first year the tests were implemented, and Ritz wondered, “What have we done to our kids?”
So she launched her grassroots campaign for superintendent.
Members of the Indiana State Teachers Association were thrilled, Meredith said, but many were somewhat skeptical Ritz could pull off a victory.
“She ran for superintendent when no one thought she would win,” Meredith said.
Teachers were feeling the brunt of so many changes in a small amount of time, Meredith said: changes in teacher bargaining rights, teacher evaluations and standardized tests.
Meredith said she was always drawn to Ritz because of her clear understanding of the ways in which politics intertwine with education, but her ability to keep the two ideas separate nonetheless.
“She’s real, very genuine, and she’s just like me,” Meredith said. “She’s not a politician. She’s a teacher.”
Bennett had much more name recognition than Ritz and a tenure as superintendent under his belt, but Ritz’s grassroots campaign had gained remarkable strength in the less than a year she’d been running.
“Oh, she’s so close, she’s worked so hard,” Watkins said she thought as she drove to Ritz’s campaign headquarters in the rain.
There was no reason for Watkins to worry, though. Ritz ended up garnering more votes than Pence.
As she watched Ritz’s lead grow on a small TV in the campaign headquarters, Meredith had tears in her eyes, she said. So much had happened to them, the teachers — the testing, the pressures. And through all the changes, no one had bothered to ask teachers how they were coping. Ritz would finally change that.
Meredith said she brought her two kids to the headquarters because she was confident they were about to witness an important moment in history. Bennett conceded the election around 10 p.m., and on the way home, his speech played over and over again on the radio. Justin, the older of her two kids, couldn’t stop grinning ear-to-ear.
“Never underestimate the power of a teacher,” Justin, 15 at the time, said when they got home. “They did, they did. They just thought she was a teacher and that was all.”
A group of anxious administrators gather in the lobby of Brown County Middle School on April 11 beneath a large, handmade sign.
“Welcome Mrs. Ritz,” it says in red and blue marker and gold glitter.
The superintendent is running late for her school visit, and Principal Brian Garman has to have time to show her every classroom and introduce her to every teacher. Everyone in the building requested time with Glenda Ritz.
Christy Pruitt, an administrative assistant, tapes up a corner of a book fair sign that’s drooping. Garman reminds himself not to forget to give Ritz the gift basket, full of Brown County goodies the school had prepared for her.
When Ritz arrives, Garman takes her from classroom to classroom. Time in between shaking teachers’ hands and talking books and algebra with students is occupied by Ritz’s stream of questions, mostly directed at Garman.
“I’m here checking up to see if you’re learning,” she says to a group of students practicing indirect characterization in “The Crucible.”
“Can I get a picture?” Sarah Cochran, the class’s teacher, asks.
“Oh, you may get a picture,” Ritz says, and Cochran rushes to get her phone.
“You’re a popular person,” Garman says as the two pose. He snaps the photo on Cochran’s phone.
Another class is reading “Hoot.” Ritz tells the students how great of a book it is, and makes sure to emphasize students have to read 15 to 20 minutes outside of school every day in order to be good readers.
A boy with a red polo and black long-sleeved shirt underneath lifts his hand.
“What if you read more than that?”
“That’s great,” Ritz says, smiling and reaching her hand out toward him.
She talks to other classes about the importance and practical application of algebra and about the prevalence of technology in schools.
One class is preparing to take the ISTEP.
“So you’re getting ready for ISTEP, huh?” Ritz says, getting a few groans in response.
“You sound excited,” she laughs. “You shouldn’t be. There’s nothing exciting about a test.”
“It’s stressful,” a boy pipes up.
Ritz tells the students not to worry — as long as they are good at reading and writing, they’ll do well.
On their way out of the class, the principal again tells the superintendent how popular she is around the school.
He’s sure she hears this all the time, he says. But the teachers feel like Ritz is the one out in the trenches, fighting for them every day.
Ritz’s schedule is jam-packed. Meetings, school visits, community events and now fundraisers and dinners to campaign. While driving from place to place, she spends time catching up on the news and fielding reporters’ calls.
Ritz said she has maintained her strong following from 2012. Mansfield said it’ll be tough for anyone to beat Ritz because the superintendent has such a strong record to run on. Reynolds said she didn’t doubt Ritz could win in 2012 and doesn’t doubt she’ll win again.
Her biggest asset is that she’s still in it for the right reasons, Mansfield said.
Watkins said she’s seen Ritz grow throughout the years she’s known her. Mostly, she’s seen her confidence soar. But Ritz is still as committed to students as she’s always been, Watkins said.
“Teachers see her as one of us,” Watkins said. “She is verbalizing what we’re all feeling.”
Last summer, Ritz announced she was going to run for governor against Pence before pulling out of the race 10 weeks later.
She agreed with Democratic candidate John Gregg’s views and would be able to help support his candidacy, she said.
But more importantly, she hasn’t finished what she’s started, she said. There is still work left to do.