According to the website of the Ohio Department of Education, “The State Board of Education is made up of 19 members – 11 who are elected and eight who are appointed by the governor.” The website does not list the political affiliation of any of the members because being on the Ohio State Board of Education involves supposedly non-political oversight. The state board appoints and oversees (supposedly) the work of the Dick Ross, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction—also supposedly a non-political position. Except that in Ohio, a state with one-party government, things don’t work as they are supposed to. Power is wielded by the Republican governor and huge Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature.
Patrick O’Donnell, who is to be commended for becoming a whiz investigative reporter on the abuses of public education by those in charge in Columbus, broke another story in yesterday’s Plain Dealer about how power works as policy is set around our state’s public education. O’Donnell reports that the new plan that was fast-tracked through the legislature for the Youngstown schools and, in the future, other struggling school districts—a plan that resembles Michigan’s emergency manager plan and the kind of state-oversight school districts that operate in Louisiana and Tennessee—was designed with the active involvement of Ohio’s state school superintendent Dick Ross, but that Dick Ross kept the evolving plan a secret from the state board of education that appointed him and to whom he reports. Members of the state board, particularly the Democrats, are furious. This was all in the works as members of the state board took a field trip in May to visit schools in Youngstown and consult with educators there about how to support this district—one of Ohio’s poorest.
O’Donnell reports: “State Supt. Dick Ross never told the state school board that he was helping with the secret improvement plan for the Youngstown schools that was rushed through the legislature and was just signed into law. Even as he offered guidance since late last year. And even as the board planned, took, and discussed a trip to Youngstown to review how an existing improvement plan was working. Board members said they spent a day visiting schools, talking to parents and school leaders about what was working and what wasn’t, completely unaware that Ross had been working with another group of city leaders there on a plan. That new plan was amended to HB 70 in a mad dash late last month, blasting from introduction to passage by both Houses of the legislature in a single day without any opportunity for opponents—or even Youngstown’s mayor or school board—to testify about it. The plan, which will also apply to any other district declared as ‘failing’ and needing state intervention, was signed into law by Gov. John Kasich Thursday.”
A bit of history. If you follow this blog you may remember that in late June, without prior warning in the middle of a a committee hearing, Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner, chair of Ohio’s Senate Education Committee, introduced a 66 page amendment to establish state takeover of the Youngstown schools by an emergency manager—and takeover in the future of any school district with three years’ of “F” ratings—rendering the elected school board meaningless and abrogating the union contract. She attached her amendment to a very popular bill designed to support expansion of the number of full-service, wraparound community learning centers in Ohio. Within hours the bill had passed the Senate, moved to the House for concurrence, and been sent to the Governor for signature. There was never a full public hearing on the amended bill. Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, had arrived in the Senate committee room to testify in favor of the bill promoting community learning centers. When she was informed that Lehner would be amending the bill under discussion with a plan to take over Youngstown’s public schools, Cropper tried to address that issue in her testimony, but was informed that she could not speak to the amendment, which had not yet been offered. After Cropper sat down, the amendment was introduced, and, according to Doug Livingston of the Akron Beacon Journal, “four men in line behind her who had traveled from Youngstown stepped up to give favorable testimony….”
O’Donnell reported yesterday that when questioned by members of the state board about his role in the design of the new Youngstown plan, Superintendent Ross answered: “It came from Youngstown. I provided assistance.” “Ross told the board that a group of Youngstown leaders had been working on a plan as far back as eight to ten months ago….” Mary Rose Oakar, a member of the state board, challenged Ross: “You had an obligation to come to this board and tell us what you were going to do. You were part of it.”
When the mayor of Youngstown had met with members of the state board when they visited Youngstown in May, he had no idea at that time about the plan that was already being drafted into legislative language. In June, the amendment introduced by Senator Peggy Lehner was 66 pages long. Youngstown’s mayor doesn’t buy that the idea was developed and drafted into legislation by people from Youngstown: “I don’t find that to be a reasonable proposition. It was written by Columbus.”
When questioned at the state board’s June meeting about the amendment she offered to take over the Youngstown school district, State Senator Peggy Lehner confessed where the real power lies. According to a Hannah Capitol Connections report that is behind a paywall, “Lehner said Gov. John Kasich’s office, not Ross, had reached out to her about moving the proposal in her role as chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.”
O’Donnell reports that those on the state board expressing anger about Ross’s behind-the-scenes work on the Youngstown plan are Democrats. While it is refreshing to hear the Ohio state board’s Democrats raising questions and expressing anger, it is unlikely that there will be serious repercussions for Ross. Republicans (including the governor’s eight appointed members) dominate the state board by more than two to one, a very significant margin. Ohio’s State Board of Education is really not a non-partisan body these days.