The Racial Injustice of Ohio Gov. DeWine’s Gerrymandering of the State Board of Education

Eleven members of the 19 member Ohio State Board of Education are elected, with eight members appointed by the governor. In mid-July, the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reported that, as he is charged to do as part of this year’s 10-year redistricting, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine had established a set of districts for the elected members of the Ohio State Board of Education.

But, as Hancock explains, the Governor’s State Board of Education district map implemented formally in July is illegal according to Ohio law, which “specifies that each (state) school board district must have ‘three contiguous Senate districts as established in the most recent apportionment for members of the General Assembly. But no Senate district shall be part of the territory of more than one state board of education district. Each state board of education district shall be as compact as practicable. The districts shall include, when practicable, some districts that primarily consist of territory in rural and some districts that primarily consist of territory in urban areas.’”

Hancock adds that according to DeWine’s new plan, “several Ohio State Board of Education districts lack three whole Senate districts.” She also reminds readers that the State Board districts are based on new Ohio House and Ohio Senate districts developed last winter by a committee made up of Governor DeWine, the Speaker of the House, the Senate President and several others.  The House and Senate district map has been rejected and deemed gerrymandered five times by the Ohio Supreme Court, and finally imposed anyway by a federal court.

In July, many in Ohio worried that the November election would be too soon for anyone to file a lawsuit challenging the crazy new State Board of Education districts. As we feared, the summer moved into autumn, and now early voting has begun.

On Tuesday morning, as I was in the midst of writing a different post for today, I received a phone call from a friend who was getting ready to participate in early voting. As we talked, I understood the racist meaning of the Governor’s’ gerrymandering of the Ohio State Board of Education in a way that was no longer abstract. I grasped what the gerrymandering mess in Ohio is really going to mean for voters in our school district and for the balance of representation on Ohio’s State Board of Education.

My friend called me because she was confused: she did not recognize the names of any of the three candidates running for the State Board of Education. We agreed that Meryl Johnson, a retired, 40-year, career Cleveland teacher, has been a wonderful representative of the needs of northeast Ohio school districts since 2016. We knew that Johnson, who was re-elected to the State Board of Education for a second four-year term in 2020, would not appear on this year’s ballot because she has two years left in her term. So who are the three new candidates and what are they doing on our ballot?

A lot of scurrying around online reassured us in one respect: for the two year remainder of her term at least, Meryl Johnson, our representative now for six years, will be serving on the State Board of Education.  But she will no longer represent our district even though we elected her. Meryl Johnson is now representing a different State Board of Education district.

For the past six years, Meryl Johnson’s State Board of Education district has included all of the largely African American east side of Cleveland, and the inner suburbs on the east side—many of them majority Black or racially integrated.  Meryl Johnson’s new District 11 includes Cleveland; many of Cleveland’s mostly white Cuyahoga County western and southern suburbs—Lakewood, Rocky River, Bay Village, Westlake, North Olmsted, Brookpark, Berea, Strongsville, Parma and Brooklyn; exurban and largely white Medina County; and rural Ashland and Wayne Counties.

Our new Ohio State Board District 10 includes Cuyahoga County’s eastern, inner-ring racially integrated or majority African American Cleveland suburbs of Cleveland Heights, University Heights, Shaker Heights, East Cleveland, South Euclid, Richmond Heights, and Warrensville Heights.  It also includes the largely white and wealthy eastern exurbs of Solon, Chagrin Falls, Moreland Hills, Hunting Valley, and Gates Mills; some of Cleveland’s southern suburbs including Independence, Brecksville and Broadview Heights; several wealthy Geauga County Cleveland exurbs along with several small, rural communities; and all of Summit County (metropolitan Akron).

Remember that Ohio law specifies: “The districts shall include, when practicable, some districts that primarily consist of territory in rural and some districts that primarily consist of territory in urban areas.’”

What became vividly clear to me and my friend during our phone call on Tuesday is that the new map cuts up and dilutes representation of African American voters across metropolitan northeast Ohio. Our African American State Board member for the past six years continues to represent half of the Cleveland school district, but she now no longer represents the voters in all Black or racially integrated school districts in East Cleveland, Warrensville Heights, Bedford, Maple Heights, Richmond Heights, Cleveland Heights-University Heights, South Euclid-Lyndhurst, Garfield Heights or Shaker Heights,  At the same time she now represents Cleveland’s largely white western suburbs along with Cleveland’s  more conservative southern exurbs and largely white, exurban Medina County. Added to further dilute the power of urban voters in her new district are two of Ohio’s most politically conservative and extremely rural areas, Ashland and Wayne Counties.

In February, the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock exposed a factor that very likely played into the redistricting of the Ohio State Board of Education: “It took some time for school board members and education advocates to assemble the map based on DeWine’s written proposal. What it showed: DeWine most drastically changed the districts of Meryl Johnson of Cleveland, Dr. Christina Collins of Medina, Dr. Antoinette Miranda of Columbus and Michelle Newman of Newark, which is outside Columbus.  All four members supported the July 14, 2020 resolution that acknowledged racism and inequity in schools against Black students, Indigenous students and students of color. They also voted against the Oct. 13 (2021) measure that rescinded the anti-racism resolution, replacing it with a statement that seeks to promote academic excellence without ‘respect to race, ethnicity or creed.’… DeWine’s  (district) lines could also make it more challenging for African Americans to get elected from the Cleveland and Columbus areas since those districts now include urban and rural areas.”

For some additional context here, remember that last November, Governor DeWine forced the resignation of two of his eight appointed members of the State Board of Education: Laura Kohler, at that time the State Board’s president, and Eric Poklar. Both Kohler and Poklar voted against replacing the State Board’s 2020 anti-racism Resolution 20 with the much more banal Resolution 13.

In a statement released in July when Governor DeWine’s new State Board district map was finalized, Honesty for Ohio Education declared: “(C)hanges to districts 6 (in the Columbus area) and 11, the state’s urban-centered districts, severely dilute urban representation, violating the law and diluting Black, brown, and other marginalized voices.”

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