YOUNGSTOWN — Esther Tharpe isn’t sure that her school district is better off than it was two years ago.
At the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, Tharpe’s home district, Youngstown, saw a state takeover sweep through — the superintendent and school board were stripped of virtually all power and a state-appointed CEO was put in their place.
“I don’t know why they’re saying the schools are so much better,” she said at a community meeting at the New Bethel Baptist Church on Tuesday night. “We need to fight for our kids because it’s just not working.”
The community meeting was organized by the Youngstown school board and the Community Leadership Coalition on Education, an activist group in Youngstown aimed at fighting against the state takeover and the legislation that put it into place, state House Bill 70.
Tharpe expressed concerns about Youngstown CEO Krish Mohip’s unchecked power regarding things like courses being offered.
“They had orchestra and band at Kirkmere Middle School and this year they decided to take it out of the schools,” she said. “I have been talking to the CEO and have been trying to understand why, but no one ever got back to me. There’s still music classes, but orchestra and band aren’t there. They say the kids aren’t interested in it, but I know that’s not true.”
Members of the Lorain school board also attended the meeting, hoping to gain insight about how House Bill 70 has affected the Youngstown district. The Lorain district fell under state control last summer when David Hardy was appointed as its CEO.
“I think that we can learn a lot from Youngstown and what’s happening here and in Lorain, we’re two very similar districts and the only two that are facing this right now,” Lorain school board president Tony Dimacchia said. “We’re hoping we can learn something from the Youngstown community as well as their board of education and some of the other folks who are here speaking.”
Dimacchia said when his school district saw the writing on the wall that it was headed for a state takeover, the majority of the board tried to accept that it was happening and make the best of the situation but since Hardy has taken over, their opinions have soured.
“We want what’s best for our students in Lorain, and if we can fix this we want to do that,” he said. “Any different perspective we can possibly get is going to help us.”
Members of both the Youngstown and Lorain school boards have expressed concerns about a lack of transparency from their CEOs, especially when it comes to financial matters.
Tensions hit a high recently in Lorain as the school board wanted to begin discussions about putting a renewal levy on the ballot but don’t feel like they have enough information about the district’s finances to make a choice.
The levy generates about $3.1 million for the district each year and runs out at the end of 2019.
Youngstown school board president Brenda Kimble said her district might have to consider a levy soon because Mohip has taken the district several million dollars into the red.
“If we continue to spend like this we will be bankrupt and we will need a levy passed to keep our children afloat,” she said. “House Bill 70 is not good for any students, any school district or any public school system because there’s no transparency of what one person can do.”
Larry Ellis, the president of the Youngstown teachers union, said one of the most concerning parts of the legislation is that during the CEO’s second year, he or she can take any “failing” building and close it or turn it into a charter school.
“If you look at fiscal year 2017, it is taking $21.4 million from your public schools,” he said of the Youngstown district. “That’s what the charter schools are sucking out of your public schools. Next year it’s supposed to be $22.6 million. They chose to try and pick off urban centers because they know urban centers have more problems than most.”
At a school board meeting Monday night, Lorain school district treasurer Josh Hill said the Lorain school district loses about $22 million to students open-enrolling or attending charter schools.
According to the Youngstown Vindicator, Mohip made comments earlier this year that charter schools could be a reality for the district if they fail.
“There is a 60 percent chance I won’t be here next year and 90 percent chance Youngstown (schools) will be turned into a charter school district by then,” Mohip is quoted as saying at a private principals’ meeting.
According to the Vindicator, Mohip also announced Tuesday that he is seeking employment outside of the district after it was released that he is a finalist for the superintendent’s position in the Boulder Valley school district in Colorado.
“I’m a father of three young children,” he said in a news release. “Last November, after a third episode of vandalism at my home, I decided I wouldn’t be comfortable bringing my family to live with (me) here in Youngstown. That’s when I began considering other employment.”
In the Vindicator, he said he felt that great strides had been made in the time he’s been in Youngstown and systems have been put “in place that have prepared the district to move forward.”
Davonta’e Winchester, 17, is a student at Youngstown’s East High School and he said he’d like to see the community come together to fight House Bill 70 and regain control of the district through their elected officials.
“When you become tired, you cry, you get frustrated but then you get hungry for accomplishments and achievements, and that’s what we have to do here,” he said. “There’s certain things we can’t look up and there’s certain answers that we need as students and a community.”
Lorain school board member Yvonne Johnson, who was elected to her position last year, said she has only been to three board meetings since taking office, but she learned quite a bit attending the Youngstown community meeting Tuesday night.
“Tony (Dimacchia) has tried to pour all of this into my mind,” she said. “I’m thankful for everything everyone said and all of this information because I know two things I’m going to do now is organize and fight.”
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