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New bill provides escape hatch for Ohio school districts under state control. Will DeWine sign it?

S.B. 165 is the latest legislative attempt to undo House Bill 70, known as the Youngstown Plan. 
Desks in a classroom

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was changed to correct the number of years Joe Meranto worked in the Youngstown City School District.] 

COLUMBUS — A bill moving through the Ohio Senate aims to provide a path back to local control for the three Ohio school districts under state takeover. 

Senate Bill 165 creates a process for returning schools operating under state-appointed academic distress commissions to the control of local school boards. It was originally written to apply only to Lorain City Schools.

According to The Chronicle, the Elyria newspaper that covers Lorain, "Under the bill, which remains in committee, Lorain Schools would have to create an academic improvement plan. Once the state Board of Education approved the plan, the district would have three years to meet the benchmarks it set for itself. Two one-year extensions would be available as well before the state would reassert control if the district failed to make the required improvements."

On Tuesday, the Ohio Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee approved an amendment to include Youngstown and East Cleveland.

S.B. 165 is the latest legislative attempt to undo House Bill 70, known as the Youngstown Plan. 

H.B. 70, which passed in 2015, requires that chronically failing school districts be placed under the control of a chief executive officer, appointed by the district academic distress commission. 

Local and statewide opponents of H.B. 70 contend the state takeover scheme has proven ineffective. 

"We certainly haven't seen any better results," said Sen. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, who serves as ranking member of the Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee. 

"It was something the [former Gov. John Kasich] administration tried and it proved it didn't work," former Sen. Sean O'Brien told Mahoning Matters Thursday. "We haven't seen the changes we need in Youngstown. Getting back local control is important."

But yet another change in leadership could prove further destabilizing for Youngstown City Schools, which is less than two years into the tenure of CEO Justin Jennings, said retiring superintendent Joe Meranto. 

Meranto worked in the district for 18 years, and has acted as a liaison between the school board and the CEO since the passage of H.B. 70. 

He also points to Jennings' accomplishments, especially his introduction of medical and mental health services into district high schools, which "was the original intent" of H.B. 70. 

"We need stability right now," he said. "We need to try to get the elected board and the CEO to work together in a transition period. And then, in a few months, they can see where we're at. If you feel this isn't working, you can look to make a change. But, right now, this is late. This is June."

S.B. 165, which is currently in the Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee, has bipartisan support

Champion of local school control Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan, D-Youngstown, said, "Hopefully we can release this stranglehold. If they develop something that school board members think is fair, I will follow their lead."

But, it's not clear Gov. Mike DeWine will sign it, even if it lands on his desk. 

When Mahoning Matters asked DeWine in April if he is committed to restoring local control to school districts like Youngstown, he said, "I made pretty clear to the legislature that we need to have a bill," DeWine said. "Totally walking away probably is not a good idea either."

He's afraid abolishing HB 70 would harm students, but he said he is "open to coming up with a new way of doing this."

Jess Hardin

About the Author: Jess Hardin

Jess Hardin is a reporter for Mahoning Matters. She grew up in Pittsburgh and last worked at The Vindicator. Jess graduated from Georgetown University.
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