Obscure board has big impact on school policy

Urban districts mostly underrepresented on state school board.

Ohio’s state school board bears little resemblance to the demographic or political makeup of the state as a whole and has increasingly led a charge toward market-driven school choice that has transferred dollars from traditional public schools to charter and private schools.

Those were the main findings of an examination by the Akron Beacon Journal and the NewsOutlet, a non-profit reporting organization staffed by Youngstown State University and University of Akron journalism students.

Few Ohioans know much about the state school board, created in a statewide referendum 60 years ago as an elected body. Despite its low profile, however, the board has wide influence on policy that impacts every child in a public school. The board writes detailed rules that put laws into action, creates academic standards and definitions, approves curriculum, establishes test benchmarks, and outlines teacher evaluations.

The board no longer includes only elected members. After the board in 1995 endorsed the landmark DeRolph lawsuit alleging school funding was unconstitutional, then-Gov. George Voinovich asked the legislature for a hybrid board with eight appointed positions in addition to the 11 elected ones.

That change over time has made a big impact on the direction of the board and the makeup of the people on it. For example:

  • Of the 17 current members of the board (two slots are vacant), 12 are Republicans.
  • Just one board member — Jeffrey Mims of Dayton — is African American, and Mims is resigning from the board after getting elected to the Dayton City Commission Nov. 5. Mims is also a Democrat, meaning the board could add another Republican when Gov. John Kasich names his replacement.
  • Just two of the 17 members reside in urban school districts, and one of the two is the departing Mims.
  • Although the board is a big advocate for charter schools, none of the current members has a child who attends a charter. About a third of the members attended private schools or sent their children there.
  • Sarah Fowler, elected to serve an unexpired term to represent a district that includes Lake and Summit counties, is a home school graduate who was strongly pushed by the home school movement, which has voted to elect more board members next year.

All told, seven board members reside in either small towns or rural school districts, eight live in affluent suburban school districts and only two live in one of the 50 districts classified as urban. Urban districts account for 25 percent of Ohio public school students, 63 percent of Ohio’s minority students and 42 percent of all students living in poverty.

Toni Morrison and Hitler

The board’s president is Hamilton County tea party activist Debe Terhar, who came under fire earlier this year for a Facebook post of Adolf Hitler regarding proposed gun regulation. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut and President Barack Obama’s call for changes in gun laws, Terhar posted a photo of Hitler with a quote that said tyrants take control of countries first by taking the guns.

The majority of the elected board members voted to oust Terhar, who was elected in 2010, but the appointed members overruled.

Terhar says she was never trying to equate Hitler to the president. She deleted the post and made her Facebook account private. “It was truly a mistake,” she said at the time.

In September, Terhar again piqued public interest by suggesting the state reconsider the inclusion of a novel by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, “The Bluest Eye,” on a high school reading list. The narrative includes a graphic description of a girl who was raped.

In a board session, Terhar said some sections of the book were “pornographic.”

Morrison was outraged, telling a Columbus TV station that she found it ironic that someone from the “board of education” would single out a book from an Ohio-born author writing about Ohio. Morrison was born in Lorain.

In an interview, Terhar, a former Montessori teacher, said her primary mission on the board is to be an advocate for early childhood education. “I’ve raised four children,” said Terhar, whose husband, Louis, is a Republican legislator from Green Twp. outside Cincinnati. “I have four grandchildren. I know what development looks like.”

She is a strong advocate for the so-called third-grade guarantee, which requires all third graders to score above a certain level on state reading tests before moving onto fourth grade. The guarantee has been unpopular with some teachers, administrators, parents and local school board members because of the lack of funding provided to implement the reform.

Terhar acknowledged the concerns but said the initiative should be a top priority for every school district. “I really do believe that this is the No. 1 issue that elementary schools need to be thinking about,” she said.

Packing the board

Ohio’s governors have long tried to control the state school board. Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland wanted the superintendent to be an appointed cabinet position. Although he was unsuccessful in that effort, he did pack the board with Democratic appointees. However, as those terms expired — board members serve four-year staggered terms — the board has become much more conservative, essentially through appointments. All of Gov. Kasich’s appointees have been Republicans.

While most board votes are cast in unison, there is a clear divide between the majority, which supports competitive, consumer-driven school choice programs, and the six members who tend to advocate for traditional public schools.

“We’ve had 15 years of choice. I was a co-sponsor of the original charter school law when I was in the state legislature,” said elected board member Bryan Williams, an Akron-area lobbyist, Republican and former state legislator. “Anything that says you live here, you go to school here….That’s no choice. So we’ve been moving away from that for a long time and I think the gradual nature of that is wise and necessary.”

Others argue that expanded choice reduces accountability and financially impairs traditional public schools. “I am a big advocate of the public school systems, which unfortunately the board isn’t anymore,” said Ann Jacobs, a Republican from Lima who has advocated for a “non-partisan” board of education.

Hybrid boards unusual

With its hybrid board structure that includes both elected and appointed board members, Ohio stands apart from most states.

Only two others — Louisiana and Nevada — have hybrid boards, according to the National Association of School Boards of Education. Voters elect all members in eight states while politicians appoint all members in 37 states. Two states — Minnesota and Wisconsin — have no state school boards. In Washington, the state school board is elected or appointed by local school boards, private schools and the governor.

Filling the appointed seats with like-minded people streamlines the governor’s agenda, currently focused on changing public education through competition, choice and tough new performance standards, according to Williams.

“The preponderance of the board supports the governor,” said Williams. “That helps. That gets a possible conflict out of the way.”

That unity came into play with the hiring of Richard Ross as state superintendent. A majority of elected members voted against hiring Ross, who held a key education advisory position in the Kasich administration, but the appointed members put him over the top.

One of the most influential members of the board, and its vice-president, is Tom Gunlock of Centerville, director of construction and property management for the family-owned construction firm RG Properties. His family has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican campaigns since 2003, including $30,000 to Gov. John Kasich’s 2010 campaign. Kasich appointed Gunlock to the board in 2011.

From 2005-06 Gunlock, 60, was on the board of directors for four Richard Allen schools in Dayton. During his tenure the state auditor cited the charter schools for failure to comply with regulations requiring federal non-profit status and failure to adequately monitor finances.

Gunlock said he doesn’t specifically recall the findings but knew there were some after he left the board.

“I was just a board member. I mean we had a board meeting once a quarter or something and listened to the financial statements and all the reports by all the professional educators like all the rest of the board members,” he said.

Although a strong believer in school choice, Gunlock said it has to be “quality” choice. “I believe that for the regular public schools as well,” he said. “Sending kids to a poor performing community school doesn’t make any sense either.”

Mims’ departure saves work for the conservative home-schooling group, Ohioans for Educational Freedom, which had targeted him for the 2014 election. The organization takes exception to his views that public money should go exclusively to public schools.

“We can’t do anything about Mims for two more years,” the group’s website said last fall as it laid out its slate of candidates for the 2012 election. “But we do have the opportunity to make sure seven other seats are filled with candidates who support our right to home educate, and not filled with those who would take away our freedoms.”

Taboo topics

During interviews, some board members suggested issues such as climate change, religion and sex should be limited or perhaps not discussed at all in schools.

Appointed board member Tess Elshoff, mother of five in public schools, said climate change should not be discussed in the context of science.

“I don’t feel that should be taught at this point because there are too many unanswered questions on facts,” she said.

Fowler, who was schooled at home, said the discussion of sex is not appropriate. “I think that the subject of sexuality is best left up to the child’s parents because they can best discern their maturity and readiness for that discussion,” she said.

But board member Mary Rose Oakar of Cleveland, a Democrat and former member of Congress, said her experience in urban schools suggests there is a critical need for a discussion on sex.

“They just had a panel in Cleveland of young mothers who were 13 and 14 years old saying what it’s like to have a little baby…what it’s like after her boyfriend left her,” Oakar said. “I mean, please. I think they have to know the ramifications of, ya know, what happens with the sexual contact.”

Contributing to this story were reporters from the NewsOutlet, a consortium of journalism programs at the University of Akron and Youngstown State University. Participating organizations are the Akron Beacon Journal, The Vindicator of Youngstown, Rubber City Radio and WYSU-FM radio

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