Representatives from districts throughout Ohio traveled to Columbus on Wednesday to urge lawmakers to address academic distress commissions in the state budget bill.
Sen. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, organized a news conference Wednesday morning, which included speakers from Lorain Schools, asking the Conference Committee and governor to put language from House Bill 154 into the state budget.
House Bill 154, introduced by Reps. Joe Miller, D-Amherst, and Don Jones, R-Freeport, would dissolve academic distress commissions put in place by House Bill 70, a controversial 2015 law that allowed for the state takeover of failing school districts. In its stead, HB 154 would require districts to create building-level improvement plans and work with the Ohio Department of Education to improve their district report cards scores while maintaining local control.
The Conference Committee includes the top-ranking members of the House and Senate. It is a chance for the Legislature to compromise on the differences between their respective budget bills ahead of sending it to the governor for his signature by the Sunday deadline.
The House’s budget bill included language from HB 154, but the Senate bill included nothing about state takeovers.
“We need a clear path to repeal state takeovers and end this failed idea,” Fedor said. “We heard from teachers, parents and community members that have lived this nightmare and want it to end.”
Mark Ballard, Lorain Board of Education president, agreed. He, along with Academic Distress Commission member Steve Cawthon, said the state takeover model goes against the democratic backbone of America.
“Remember that school districts are communities and the time for community takeovers has passed,” Cawthon said.
Ballard said the highly flawed state report card was part of the problem, but noted it was important to highlight that Lorain Schools had been working with the state to help improve its test scores ahead of its takeover by the state. He also referenced something Sen. William Coley, R-Liberty Township, has said during several committee meetings as a criticism for returning local control to school boards under state mandate.
“Oftentimes you’ll hear people talk about we drove the bus into the ditch, but we’ve been under at least two commissions, so they’ve been driving the bus for the past six or seven years,” Ballard said.
For Canton, Dayton, Toledo and Columbus school districts, the inclusion of language from House Bill 154 would halt their move toward state control. They, along with five other districts in the state, could fall under House Bill 70’s purview within the next two years if the law remains in place or their test scores do not improve.
Dayton Board of Education member Mohamed Al-Hamdani said there is no silver bullet for fixing the issues each community faces, but they can all agree House Bill 70 doesn’t work.
“We’re not afraid of accountability, what we’re afraid of is outsiders coming to our community telling us what to do without them having any knowledge of the problems that we face,” he said.
Toledo Board of Education member Chris Varwig had similar words for senators opposing the language in House Bill 154. Varwig also referenced Coley’s often-repeated remarks of driving the school district into the ditch when addressing flawed report cards and overtesting in her district — where 2,700 of the 23,000 students are homeless or transient.
“The only ditch that we find ourselves in is the one created by the state,” she said.
Senate hearing on House Bill 154
The state Senate Education Committee heard sponsor testimony on House Bill 154 Wednesday morning despite the Senate-passed bill not including language from HB 154. Jones fielded questions from his fellow Republicans, including committee chairwoman Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, and Andrew Brenner, R-Powell. Lehner was chairwoman of the same commission when House Bill 70 was passed in 2015 and Brenner, as a representative, was one of the bill’s primary sponsors.
“This (HB 70) is a problem because the state is not capable of running a local district with unique and individual needs,” Jones said, “which is why we have local school boards and why they need to be empowered and helped, not sidelined and thrown a life preserver after they’ve already drowned.”
Coley offered criticism of HB 154, similar to what he did when the bill’s language was still in the state budget. He asked Jones what would happen if a district ignored the state’s suggestions — stating the bill needs “teeth.” Jones agreed right now there is no threat if the district doesn’t improve its report card scores, and said provisions could be amended into it by the Senate.
Brenner asked Jones if he would be willing to wait for the upcoming state report cards before the law would go into effect, to see if there has been any improvement under the current law. Jones said he didn’t want to wait and see how many schools could find themselves in that situation and that legislators need to act now to remedy the problem.
“I don’t have a lot of patience,” Jones said later in the hearing. “How long have we been doing HB 70 and we didn’t see the results we thought we were going to get.”
Lehner stated House Bill 154 is similar to the plan that is already in place, citing the Ohio Department of Education already sends an improvement team into failing districts and there is nothing stopping CEOs from providing wraparound services as the law stands.
“That was part of (HB 70) and it’s still part of (HB 70), and there’s nothing to prevent a school from doing wraparound services today,” she said.
Miller submitted written testimony but was not present at Wednesday’s hearing. His testimony notes almost everyone he has talked to has agreed the Ohio General Assembly needs to address state takeovers sooner rather than later.
“Three communities have already been consumed by the debate over state takeovers, with many more on the horizon,” he wrote. “It is time for us to come together around a plan and erase the uncertainty over what comes next for these districts. It is my hope and belief that HB 154 will be that plan.”
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