By Justin Wier
Nobody is happy with the status quo at Youngstown City Schools, but a new plan to address the woes of Ohio’s struggling school districts is creating as much concern as it is garnering support.
The Youngstown Plan, as it is being called, was put together by a group called the Youngstown City Schools Business Cabinet at the behest of officials in Columbus.
Youngstown State University President Jim Tressel, who participated in several of the discussions and testified in support of the plan on the floor of The Ohio State Senate, said the current model — an academic distress commission that was put into place in 2010 — has not worked.
“Our success rate here in the city of Youngstown is not good, in fact, over half of the students have left the district,” Tressel said. “I think the original intent of people getting together was, ‘Hey, we can’t allow this school district to fail any more than it’s failed, and we certainly wouldn’t want it to go away.’”
The plan establishes a commission comprising three members appointed by the state superintendent, one by the mayor and a teacher appointed by the district’s school board. The commission will hire a CEO to manage the school district.
Joe Schiavoni, who represents Youngstown in The Ohio State Senate, is one of many local politicians who is upset by the plan.
“The CEO can do whatever he or she wants with the Youngstown City Schools once he or she is appointed by this commission, and unfettered power like that is something that I don’t like to see,” Schiavoni said. “This person would just have the ability to break teacher contracts, turn certain schools into charter schools, turn the whole district into charter schools eventually if that’s what they think [is necessary].”
Tressel acknowledged concerns that the CEO will not answer to voters, but he said it was the best idea he heard in the meetings and he thought it could lead to greater accountability.
“I think a CEO will be brought in with an accountability to the people that hired them, and you won’t have to wait for an election by the masses. If they’re not doing the job, they probably won’t have the job,” Tressel said.
The other point of contention concerns the secretive nature of the business cabinet’s meetings and the way the bill was rushed through the legislature.
The governor’s office contacted Schiavoni at 6 p.m. to notify him there would be a vote on an amendment to HB70 the following morning at 9 a.m. He said the process raised concerns among many senate republicans, leading five of them to vote against the measure despite the fact that republican Governor John Kasich was pushing to have the bill passed.
“As the clock was ticking, more and more republicans were looking and saying, ‘We didn’t even get an opportunity to read this, so why do we have to vote on this in such a quick manner?’” Schiavoni said. “It was because the governor wanted to get that done that day, so that we can go into summer recess, and then it can move forward.“
He was upset that the public wasn’t consulted before the legislation was passed, given the impact it has on such a vital part of the city.
An anonymous source provided the Youngstown Warren Black Caucus with minutes from two of the meetings that revealed the state superintendent had said, “Confidentiality among the cabinet is essential until the plan begins to take place.”
Tressel said they had to keep the confidentiality of the legislative process in mind.
“We weren’t going to be out there talking to everyone premature to what the legislature was talking about because it’s a state model,” Tressel said.
He said it can be hard to discuss important matters when there are too many people in the room, and acknowledged that someone will always feel left out.
“If you’ve got 17 people involved, everyone from 18 on is mad. If you get 23 involved, everyone from 24 on is mad,” Tressel said.
He also said the existence of minutes suggests the meetings weren’t secret.
“Whenever you’re involved in something and you keep minutes, that implies that you know it’s not secret because you put on paper what you’re doing,” Tressel said.
Despite that, the minutes show that Tressel suggested creating a focus group to include the public, “in hopes of avoiding drastic push-back or opposition to the plan.”
Two state lawmakers, including Michele Lepore-Hagan, who represents Youngstown in the state house of representatives, asked the state superintendent to step down after the release of the minutes and accused the meetings of violating state sunshine laws.
Tom Humphries, the CEO of the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber who led the meetings, has refused to release the minutes from other meetings to the press.
Schiavoni said he has been conducting public meetings, along with Lepore-Hagan and Youngstown Mayor John McNally, to create a plan they can present to the new commission and CEO.
“The content [of the legislation] is problematic to me because there’s nothing in the bill about programs to help kids succeed,” Schiavoni said. “All the nuts and bolts of the plan are actually talking about the CEO’s power.”
Schiavoni said the plan will focus on establishing programs to help students cope with issues holding them back that have been brought up at the meetings.
“[They have] issues that they have to deal with day in and day out that most other students don’t have to,” Schiavoni said.
Tressel said repeatedly that everyone in the meetings was deeply concerned with the success of Youngstown’s students.
“The intentions were tremendous. Simply, ‘we’ve got to do something for these students.’ If it weren’t that way, after a meeting or two I would’ve said, ‘I’m busy,’” Tressel said.
Schiavoni said he hopes the commission and the CEO will utilize the recommendations his group gathered from the community, and use that as the next step because the legislation does not outline the next step for the CEO once he or she assumes power.
Tressel said he is not bothered by criticism of the plan because people on both sides of the issue have the same intentions.
“I think everyone’s frustration is that we haven’t succeeded, and I think everyone’s desire is that we do succeed,” Tressel said.