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Bill to repeal and replace state school takeover passes House (UPDATED, VIDEO)


House Bill 154, which would repeal and replace the controversial state takeover law passed in 2015, passed in the Ohio House on Wednesday afternoon.

Introduced by Reps. Joe Miller, D-Amherst, and Don Jones, R-Freeport, the bill passed with a vote of 83-12. It now moves to the Senate, where it is expected to be assigned to the Education Committee, Miller said Wednesday evening.

The bill would abolish the academic distress commissions in Lorain, Youngstown and East Cleveland; return control to locally elected school boards; and provide support for struggling districts by implementing improvement plans at the building level.

During the hearing, Jones said the lack of local control imposed by House Bill 70 has had a number of unintended consequences on the three districts under its purview. From an Academic Distress Commission and/or CEO that may not know a district, to the loss of morale and community engagement. He said the bill would look to re-engage the community while designating specific buildings in need of intervention.

The bill’s intervention would be triggered by individual building report card scores, not an overall failing grade for the district. It would require a community learning center model to be implemented in districts under an Academic Distress Commission or buildings that have been determined as low-performing for three consecutive years.

It would require a low-performing building to conduct a performance audit after its first year under the designation, hire a resource coordinator and design an improvement plan. In the second and third year, that plan must be evaluated and adopted, with support from the State Superintendent and Ohio Department of Education — while allowing districts to address their performance at a local level.

“The short of it is that we need to do what is right by our students,” Jones said. “The current model of state control is not working and shows no signs of being able to work.”

Miller added there are challenges these “failing” districts face that make helping low-performing buildings improve a difficult task, such as children coming to school hungry or not knowing where they will be sleeping that night.

“Unfortunately, I can’t stand here today and tell you House Bill 154 will solve all problems,” Miller said during the legislative session. “There’s still much work to be done. But what House Bill 154 does is lay out a framework for communities to identify challenges they face and create a plan to address them.”

Despite the bill’s overwhelming support during the vote, it was not without its opposition on the floor. Rep. Naraj Antani, R-Miamisburg — whose county, but not district, includes Dayton Schools — said it is too early to tell if House Bill 70 has failed. Under the current state takeover model, if Dayton Schools does not improve its state report card this fall it will trigger a takeover of the urban district, which serves more than 13,000 students.

“House Bill 70 provides a five-school-year plan in order to turnaround that district,” he said. “We are currently, to my understanding, in the third school year of that five-year plan. And so to say that the Academic Distress Commission model has not worked, to me, we don’t know yet. The plan under House Bill 70 has not been given it’s time to put out.”

He said his fear is that HB 154 removes the accountability that House Bill 70 required, as the looming threat of state takeover has prompted Dayton Schools to have “a lot of activity in trying to turn that school district around.”

Todd Smith, R-Farmersville, also opposed the bill. He said failing districts have little to do with the buildings within the school system, but the quality of students that are coming there — many facing “social ills” such as being hungry. He said House Bill 154 has no bite and very little bark to make schools do better.

Others, like Kent Smith, D-Euclid, overwhelmingly supported the measure. His district includes East Cleveland Schools, which fell under state control at the beginning of this school year. Sporting a red tie in support of Shaw High School and its 180 years of local control out of its 181 years in existence, he said House Bill 70 originally was designed to remove substandard governance. Instead, it has targeted low-income, high-minority districts.

He noted East Cleveland, Youngstown and Lorain all have median household incomes of less than half the state average, and the next 10 districts on the precipice also are below the state average. The three districts taken over also have a combined minority rate of 88 percent, compared with the state average of about 30 percent.

“This is not just about three, or 10, or 13 districts,” he said. “This is about democracy and the great American experiment.”

Lorain’s reaction

Locally, Lorain school board president Mark Ballard and Mayor Chase Ritenauer said it was good for Lorain to hear Miller’s bill had passed in the House.

Ritenauer, who has made several trips to Columbus to speak with legislators as he has become more vocal about the issues in Lorain Schools, said Wednesday’s vote was a key step forward but not the final step in the process to repeal House Bill 70.

“What I think this shows is with the margin that it passed by, that there is significant bipartisan support to end House Bill 70,” he said. “And I attribute that largely to the efforts in Lorain. I think all of the teachers, the community, the parents, attending meetings, speaking out, letting their voices be heard here as well as down there; I think it’s making a difference.”

Ballard shared similar sentiments.

“To see that type of a margin only says when it comes to children doing right by communities, democracy always wins and we are just very, very proud of the first step that has been taken to right this wrong that has been done to public education in Ohio as a whole.”

Ballard and others from the district are planning to hop on a charter bus to attend the State Board of Education meeting May 14 and will meet with legislators while in Columbus. Ballard said they will be targeting senators, including Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, in the hopes of seeing the bill pass in the Senate after committee.

“They’ve got to see the effects this has had, so it never happens again in our democracy,” he said.

Miller said Wednesday evening that the language could be included in the biennial budget, in addition to the standalone legislation sent over.

“We want to carve out the initial placeholder language on ADCs and school reform that the governor placed in there, based on a lot of what was already in code and some of ODE’s recommendations, the governor’s recommendations … if approved that will be sent over to the Senate in the budget as well. Then it’s up to the Senate to decide how they want to handle it.

But he expected either version would be a tough sell to the Ohio Senate. He said in attempting to reach out to senators in the Education Committee, he and others heard HB 154 wasn’t the “right answer” to reforming the current laws.

“I don’t believe they’re going to accept our bill as-is and turn around and pass it and send it back, so therefore the Senate’s going to have their options available to them on how they want to handle it,” he said.

HB 154 is the first of three proposed bills in the 133rd General Assembly working to change the state takeover process to make it out of committee.

Contact Carissa Woytach at (440) 329-7245 or cwoytach@chroniclet.com.

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