Changes to the state’s academic distress law that were approved by both the Ohio House and Senate on Wednesday give the state power to effectively take over struggling districts, allowing the removal of school boards, changes to union contracts, and the conversion of public schools into charter schools.
The measure passed the day it was introduced, leaving school and union officials Thursday puzzled about the speed with which it was approved. Gov. John Kasich is expected to sign the bill.
The Youngstown school district is specifically targeted by the legislation, since it has been under an academic distress commission since 2010, but the bill’s provisions apply to any school district that is determined to be in academic distress. A spokesman for Gov. Kasich said the proposal for the bill came from a Youngstown group.
The measure was OK’d as an amendment to a bill creating community learning centers, which are similar to the “school hubs” in Toledo Public Schools that coordinate community services.
Jay Smith, deputy director of legislative services at the Ohio School Boards Association, said the bill caught the association, which opposes the changes that give the state more power, off guard.
“We had no idea that was going to be placed into the bill until the very last minute,” he said.
State authorities designate schools as academic distressed if they have failing grades on statewide district performance grade cardsthree years in a row. Current law allows a commission appointed by the state superintendent and local officials to create an improvement plan the district is to follow.
The new legislation would require that commission to hire a chief executive who would run the school district, giving that person power to hire staff, set the budget, remove principals and other staff, and close schools.
The legislation also calls for the expansion of “high quality” school choice options in academically distressed districts. Schools can be closed and reopened as charter schools, and the CEO can exempt employees of that new charter school, meaning they cannot be union members.
If a district remains in academic distress for a second year, the CEO can limit, suspend, or change any element of a collective-bargaining agreement with its employees. Union leaders, such as Toledo Federation of Teachers President Kevin Dalton, have criticized both the bill and how it was passed.
“School districts must be afforded an opportunity to provide public testimony. This opportunity was denied (Wednesday),” Mr. Dalton said in a statement. “... we hope the members of the general assembly will work to remedy this situation immediately.”
By year four, the legislation requires the mayor of the school district’s municipality to appoint a new school board. Toledo Board of Education President Bob Vasquez said the proposed changes were voted on before he learned of them.
“I’m really concerned about the fact that it went through so quickly, and it wasn’t in my mind vetted through everyone,” he said. “I’m wondering why that process happened and why it happened so quickly.”
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