Ohio Fast-Tracks Emergency Manager for Youngstown Schools and More Districts in Future

The headline on Doug Livingston’s piece in the Akron Beacon Journal, says it all: Ohio Lawmakers Scrap Elected School Boards and Union Contracts, Usher In Private Control After Barring Opposition Testimony.

Livingston explains: “The bill began innocuously in the House as an effort to help communities turn schools into comprehensive learning centers for the neighborhood. The bill passed from the House to the Senate a month ago with an overwhelming 92-6 vote.” The bill was originally designed to encourage the creation of what are in most states called “community schools,” but in Ohio (which calls all charter schools “community schools,”) such schools are called “community learning centers” with wrap around community services provided for families right in the school building—enhancements like health clinics, dental clinics, child care programs.  Here is the descriptive language in the bill’s summary as penned by the Ohio Legislative Service Commission—before the bill was amended: “Authorizes school districts and community schools to transition any of their school buildings into a community learning center to participate in a coordinated, community-based effort with community partners to provide comprehensive educational, developmental, family, and health services to students, families, and community members.”

Then last Wednesday, without prior warning in the middle of a a committee hearing, Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner 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.  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.

Livingston reports that 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 Livingston, “four men in line behind her who had traveled from Youngstown stepped up to give favorable testimony”—Youngstown State University president Jim Tressell; Bishop George Murry of the Youngstown Diocese; Thomas Humphries president of the Chamber of Commerce; and the current superintendent, Connie Hathorn, the man who has failed to improve test scores in the district and who has agreed to leave for a new job in Arkansas at month’s end.

The new plan will affect Youngstown now, but in the future it will affect any school district that receives an “F” rating for three consecutive years.  Once a district has three annual ratings of “F”, it can, according to Livingston, “be taken over by a state academic distress commission, which consists of three members appointed by the state superintendent, another by the local mayor, and a teacher selected by the local school board president.  The commission then hires a CEO, who doesn’t have to be an educator but must have ‘high-level management experience.’  The CEO is paid up to $150,000 directly by the Ohio Department of Education.  The academic distress commission also can hire an ‘independent entity’—possibly a for-profit company—to oversee and promote local charter schools.  The state’s private voucher program also opens up to any student who would otherwise attend the academically distressed school district, regardless of how well the nearest school building in that system performs.  Schools can get out of academic distress if they earn a C grade on the report card and no more Fs in the next two years. Though overall grades aren’t out yet, 59 percent of all grades given last year to Ohio’s eight largest and poorest urban school districts were Fs.”

Why Youngstown first?  Livingston explains: “The discussion centered on Youngstown, which has been guided by an academic distress commission since 2010… Lorain, the other Ohio school district in academic distress, must perform poorly another  two years before it falls under the new provision…. Youngstown has the highest poverty rate among Ohio’s 10 major cities and it is eighth in the nation for poverty among more than 550 ranked cities.”

Stephen Dyer, former Ohio House member and former reporter for the Beacon Journal, explains exactly how this is likely to play out—first in Youngstown and then across Ohio’s urban districts that include Cleveland, Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, Lorain, Toledo and Akron: “(H)ere’s the thing. Only when the district gets an overall C grade on the state report card will the district even start to get out of this academic distress thing.  So, essentially, we are creating a city-wide, more or less permanent dictatorship in Youngstown.  Why do I say this is permanent?  Because all the grades on the state report card are based on test scores, which are nearly perfectly correlated with a district’s poverty rate.  So Youngstown, with its nearly 100% poverty rate has almost zero chance of ever getting out from under this dictator’s thumb.  We’ve seen how dreadful this situation has worked in Michigan.”

So, how have Michigan’s school district emergency managers worked out?  Here are two examples.  In Muskegon Heights and Highland Park, the governor appointed emergency managers in 2012.  In Muskegon Heights, the emergency manager hired Mosaica Schools, a for-profit Charter Management Organization to run the district.  In April 2014, Mosaica and Muskegon Heights’s emergency manager agreed to terminate the contract because the company, a for-profit corporation, lost money instead of turning a profit. Then just this month, Highland Park’s emergency manager reached an agreement to shorten by a year what had been a five-year contract with the Leona Group, also a for-profit Charter Management Organization.  The Leona Group closed Highland Park’s  only high school at the end of the current school year, and has agreed to conclude its contract with Highland Park after the upcoming school year and for a far lower fee.  It was to have been paid $780,000 per year, and will collect only $150,000 for the school year just ended.

People in Youngstown were stunned by the news of the rushed and secret state legislation to take over their schools.  School board president Brenda Kimble is quoted in the Youngstown Vindicator: “We’re going to band together as a community.  We’re not going to just let this happen. They didn’t consult anybody in the city, any of the elected officials including, as far as I know, any of city council or the unions.”

No Democrat in either chamber of Ohio’s legislature voted for the bill. Youngstown’s legislative representatives all voted against the bill.  State Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan has posted a statement on her website: “Fast-tracking a takeover of Youngstown City Schools prevents our community from coming together in a constructive way to chart a course for our children to succeed.  Frustration in the Mahoning Valley cannot and should not be replaced by what could amount to a power grab from Columbus outsiders… From the first day I took office, I expressed concerns that Columbus would try to shut down Youngstown schools and centralize power with an unaccountable and less transparent governing structure that moves children to failing, for-profit charter schools.  I took the governor at his word that this would not be the case, but here we are today faced with what appears to be exactly that.”