It was late on a Tuesday in June when Ohio State Sen. Joe Schiavoni got the call from a staffer for Gov. John Kasich (R). It was a courtesy call to let the Democratic minority leader know that Republicans would introduce legislation the next morning to dramatically alter the Youngstown public schools, in Schiavoni’s district.
They would offer a 66-page amendment to a pending education bill, and it would be brought before a legislative committee in the morning, and then both houses would vote on it later in the day, the staffer said.
Schiavoni protested, saying that he and his colleagues needed to read the proposal. Kasich wanted a vote on Wednesday, the staffer said.
The lawmaker jumped in his car outside his home in northeast Ohio and drove 177 miles to the State House in Columbus, arriving at about 9 p.m. to get a copy of the proposal from Sen. Peggy Lehner (R), the chair of the education panel.
As he thumbed through it, Schiavoni realized it was nothing like the education bill that had been pending and had received bipartisan backing. That bill, modeled after a successful effort in Cincinnati, would have provided early childhood programs, after-school tutoring and wraparound services such as counseling and health and dental care in the school buildings.
The Kasich administration’s amendment called for an aggressive takeover by a state-appointed chief executive who would have broad authority over the 5,109-student school system. The chief executive would be able to hire and fire, create budgets, set curriculum and professional development for staff and would have the ability to permanently close schools or contract with for-profits or nonprofits to manage them.
The chief executive would not need a background in education; the only requirement is a “high level of management experience” in the public or private sector.
One distinctive aspect of the plan is a cash bonus paid by the state to any charter, private, parochial or suburban school system that accepts a student transferring out of Youngstown City Schools. One participant in the secret meetings was Bishop George V. Murry of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, which operates several parochial schools in the city that would be eligible for such bonuses. Murry did not respond to requests for comment.
Proponents of the plan say that financial incentive is a way to put pressure on Youngstown City Schools to improve rapidly. Critics say it’s designed to hollow out the district until it collapses.
Schiavoni said he told Lehner that he wanted more time to discuss the proposal and have hearings. “She said, ‘Gov. Kasich wants this passed tomorrow,’ ” Schiavoni said. Lehner could not be reached for comment.
By the next night, the education committee had voted on the amended bill, and Republican majorities in the Ohio House and Senate had passed it, albeit narrowly, with a handful of Republicans joining all the Democrats in opposition. Kasich signed it into law in July.
Kasich “knew if people read it they would have real questions, and if this was done the right way, with public hearings in the community and Columbus, people would have a lot of questions because of the drastic way it takes all the power from elected officials and puts it in the hands of one CEO,” Schiavoni said.
A legal challenge, asserting that the quick passage violated legislative procedures, is pending.
A spokesman for Kasich said the governor felt great urgency to do something to improve the Youngstown schools.
“Gov. Kasich had been vocal about the need to improve the Youngstown School system in light of the fact that they had been failing for nearly 10 years and students were being deprived of the education they deserved,” said Joe Andrews, the governor’s press secretary.
The chief executive, who is expected to be named next month, is not required to have experience in education. The only qualification spelled out by the law is “a high level of management experience” in the public or private sector.
More than 98 percent of the students in Youngstown are considered low-income. The children start school already behind the curve: 70 percent of kindergartners in 2013-2014 were not on track to read by third grade, an important indicator of academic potential.
Youngstown City Schools have been hemorrhaging students. About half the school-aged students who live in Youngstown attend other schools — charters or private schools with or without taxpayer vouchers, or they enroll in suburban schools through open enrollment policies in which neighboring communities will accept city residents if they have room.
Schiavoni is concerned that the new cash bonuses will speed the collapse of the existing school system.
Asked by reporters about the way the legislation sped through legislature, Kasich said: “Some people said it moved too fast; I think it moved too slow,” he said. “Thank God this has happened.”
The fast-track passage belies the fact that the Kasich administration had been steadily working to craft the takeover for 10 months behind closed doors with about a half-dozen of Youngstown’s business and community leaders — none of them elected officials.
Tom Humphries, president of the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce and a Kasich supporter, organized the community members, who referred to themselves as “the Cabinet.”
“I have a pretty good relationship with the governor,” Humphries said. “Every time I see him, he’s asking me what am I going to do to fix Youngstown. . . . He said to try to get the business community together to try to come up with a plan.”
About half the group were state officials, including Ohio School Superintendent Richard Ross, who stepped down from the job last month. Notes taken at the meetings and released by the state show they were operating in secret and were concerned about Youngstown residents learning what they were doing.
“Dr. Ross begins the conversation by reminding everyone that confidentiality amongst the Cabinet is essential until the plans begins to take place,” the notes from a May 21, 2015, meeting said.
It was clear that Kasich’s staff wrote the takeover plan; even after the legislature passed the bill, some of the “cabinet” members were asking state officials to explain parts of it, according to the notes.
But they were mindful about coordinating their public messages, working with a public relations specialist to make sure they were speaking with one voice as members of the Youngstown community, according to the notes.