Controversial school takeover law upheld by Ohio Supreme Court

Ohio’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the 2015 law governing state takeover of “academically distressed” school districts does not violate the Ohio constitution.

The law, widely known as House Bill 70, established that any district receiving three straight overall F’s on the state report card would be overseen by an Academic Distress Commission, which must appoint a CEO who has “complete operational, managerial, and instructional control” over the district.

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Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland are the only three school districts that have been taken over in the years since, although Trotwood-Madison and Dayton schools came close.

Many education groups opposed the law from the beginning, arguing that local control of schools is better than takeover by state-appointed boards and CEOs.

State legislators from both political parties have spoken out against the ADC system in recent years, calling it ineffective. Multiple new plans were considered, but the House and Senate couldn’t agree on a replacement system last year.

So the state budget bill passed in July 2019 placed a moratorium on new takeovers until October 1, 2020, to give legislators more time to create a new system. Now, Ohio Department of Education officials say with no state testing or state report card for this school year, no new districts will go into ADC status during 2020-2021.

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ODE spokeswoman Mandy Minick said under the recently passed House Bill 197, districts that are already under an ADC will continue to be in that status for 2020-21. But CEOs cannot gain any additional powers for the coming year that they did not already have in 2019-20, and new mayoral-appointed school boards cannot be established.

The Supreme Court vote was 5-2, with Justices Michael P. Donnelly and Melody J. Stewart dissenting.

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The Youngstown school board had argued that the legislature violated procedural rules in the constitution by adding a 67-page amendment to an existing bill on improving low-performing schools and passing it the same day.

The court’s lead opinion, written by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, said while the amendment added “significant substantive language,” the amended bill “continued to relate to the creation of new methods for attempting to improve underperforming schools” and thus the bill was not “vitally altered.”

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The Youngstown school board had argued that HB 70 also unconstitutionally stripped all power from city school boards. O’Connor’s opinion said the constitutional language governs the size and organization of school boards, but not their power and authority.

There was enough nuance to the issue that the five justices in the majority wrote three different opinions, largely focusing on which issues were enforceable by the courts. Both dissenting justices objected on the procedural grounds, with Donnelly saying the process by which the bill was passed set a “new low for constitutional compliance.”

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