Proposal to change school board powers in Ohio draws mixed reviews

Fordham Institute suggests changes on union, tax levy rules, hiring, firing and pay; groups representing teachers, school boards have reservations

A prominent Ohio education nonprofit says reforms for local school boards could help improve student outcomes.

The Fordham Institute, an education think tank, released a report this week that detailed four ways the organization thinks school boards could be improved.

“This report tries to get at some of the issues that I think limit the ability of district leaders to act on behalf of their students and in the best interest of students,” said Aaron Churchill, Ohio research director for the Fordham Institute.

However, he noted that the state does have a limited scope in what they can do to impact local school boards. Ohio is a local control state, meaning decisions like which curriculum to use, the district’s budget and what superintendent and teachers are hired — decisions that directly impact the quality of a child’s education — are supposed to be made by school boards, not the state.

The report’s recommendations included:

  • Holding school boards accountable through changes at the ballot box and changing some of the ways school boards are compensated;
  • Changing how often schools can put tax levies on the ballot and the language around levies;
  • Rules around hiring and firing superintendents should be relaxed; and
  • Narrowing the scope of collective bargaining and rules around tenure.

Some of Churchill’s suggestions, like stopping the use of the term “emergency levy,” are supported by some school district officials, who say the term, which just designates a specific type of levy and doesn’t mean the district is in fiscal distress, can be confusing to voters.

But other suggestions, like putting school board candidates’ party affiliation on the ballot and limiting the number of times a school board can put a levy on the ballot, are opposed by some school board members. And the rule suggestions around collective bargaining would be deeply unpopular with teachers’ unions.

Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, one of the Ohio teachers’ unions, said some of the rules around limiting teachers’ voices that Fordham proposed have been tried and don’t work.

“If you look at state-by-state performance, states with strong collective bargaining laws tend to have higher levels of student achievement than states that have weak or non-existent collective bargaining laws,” DiMauro said.

The Ohio School Boards Association has not been able to review all of the proposals yet, said Jennifer Hogue, director of legislative services for OSBA.

Hogue said the OSBA supports paying school board members more fairly for the work that they do. Board members are generally paid a few thousand dollars for the year.

She said OSBA does not support limiting ballot requests for new levies, as it often takes three times for a levy to pass. The state requires a local share from districts though it also contributes state funding.

“Requiring that local share and then tying the hands of districts who must seek those funds from voters will greatly impact students and cause a reduction in the services and opportunities they receive,” Hogue said.

Kathy McFarland, chief executive officer of OSBA, said previously that the OSBA does not support putting political affiliations on ballots for many reasons, but one specific one was that it would shrink the pool of school board candidates as some public employees cannot run for partisan office.

“OSBA believes that the cornerstone of public education in Ohio is locally elected boards of education that exercise local control in establishing policy and governance of their schools while remaining accountable to the citizens who elected them,” Hogue said. “This level of local control produces a school system designed to meet the needs of the community’s children and provides a direct means to influence local education policies, programs, costs and outcomes.”

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