Youngstown school plan speeds up turnaround effort

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Published on December 30, 2015 in The Vindicator (Link)

By MATT HAWOUT
TheNewsOutlet.org

YOUNGSTOWN

While House Bill 70, known as the Youngstown Plan, moves forward, a similar plan to improve Cleveland Metro School districts is in its third year.

Both are legislative plans to raise student achievement; however, the pace of HB 70 is supersonic when compared with that of the Cleveland initiative.

To ensure that speed, legislators gave the Youngstown CEO more power over staffing, the closing of schools and the creation of and reliance on charter schools.

This alarms elected leaders, union representatives and teachers.

“Looking at [HB 70] and comparing it to the Cleveland Plan and all the other CEO-takeover plans across the country, this is the most aggressive, meaning this gives the most power to one person,” said state Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd, who voted against the bill.

Schiavoni, Ohio Senate minority leader, said under HB 70 if a school can’t raise its grade from an F to a C in one year, the CEO could fire the staff, close the school and reopen it later as a charter school.

The chances of a school meeting that challenge are extremely slim, said Victor Ruiz, a member of the Cleveland Transformation Alliance, a nonprofit group created to ensure that city’s schools adhere to the plan.

“We’re in year three of the plan, so I think that we need to give the plan enough time to start seeing results,” Ruiz said. “Results have been slow in coming – positive results. There’s so much that needed to be reformed, and we need to let it work through the cycle so that we can see the benefits of it.”

Even groups that helped create HB 525 say turnarounds can’t happen overnight – or in a year.

“We have not seen jumps that are that large from a failing to a kind of mid-performing school. I would be very surprised if that happened,” said Shana Marbury, general counsel for the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the metropolitan chamber of commerce that worked on the HB 525 legislation.

Instead, the progress made by the Cleveland Plan has been slow, but steady.

“Overall, there’s incremental progress; there are some mixed results,” Marbury said. “Some of the things we look at as major progress are things like the graduation rate increasing from about 52 percent to 64 percent. Now that’s still much too low, but that is very good progress.”

Proponents of the Youngstown Plan say too much time has been spent on failed turnaround attempts, and this affects the futures of the city’s children.

“What we’re doing now is not producing the end result we want for those children,” said Tom Humphries, president and CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, during an interview on Vindy Radio. Humphries was a member of the panel that helped formulate HB 70.

“So, let’s change the process that oversees that to see if we can enhance that. You’ll see efficiency, less attention on who said what, and more attention on outcomes. I think we can build that kind of system … that they can have that same chance as everyone else.”

Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, who presented the 60-page amendment to HB 70, did not respond to several requests for comment. Kettering is also the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

The original bill began as a plan to create community learning centers, school-based programs incorporating after-school programs and some access to medical facilities.

One of the original sponsors, Rep. Denise Driehaus, D-Cincinnati, ended up voting against her own bill because the amendment would create a situation where “local control is ignored and a state-appointed CEO is given free reign over a school district deemed by the state to be in distress.”

CEO or CZAR?

Though both plans technically use a CEO to spearhead the city schools turnaround, the Youngstown position has more czarlike powers.

After the first year, the Youngstown CEO can replace the majority of teaching and nonteaching staff, open collective bargaining agreements and convert public schools into charter schools. After the second year, the CEO can change or suspend any agreements with unions.

This type of mass firing couldn’t be done in Cleveland, where the CEO is only allowed to fire principals and assistant principals after due process.

“With teachers, the union is very much still in existence in the district so there is a process. The CEO cannot just ‘fire’ someone. There’s an evaluation process and that was created and established in conjunction with the union,” Marbury said.

In Youngstown, the CEO isn’t required to provide regular teacher evaluations.

“Say you’re a teacher who’s taught in Youngstown schools for 27 years. You’re getting close to retirement age and all of a sudden, a CEO comes in and says, ‘See you later.’ I mean where does that teacher go?” Schiavoni said.

Three pages of Cleveland HB 525 are dedicated to establishing the teacher-evaluation process. In HB 70, teacher evaluations are referred to twice and offer no criteria for establishing teacher evaluations and timetable requirement that the CEO implement them.

Also, the requirements for the CEO position are also different.

The Cleveland Plan says the CEO must have “significant expertise in either the education field, finance or business management.”

Likewise, in the Youngstown Plan, the CEO must have “high-level management experience” in the public or private sector, but not necessarily in the field of education.

Cleveland’s CEO Eric Gordon’s background included an extensive educational background as well as formerly acting as the district’s chief academic officer.

HB 70 vs. UNIONS

Under both turnaround plans, the CEO and corrective-action teams can override prior collective-bargaining agreements.

House Bill 70 includes language that essentially allows for breaking unions in community schools if the CEO asks the board of education and the State Employment Relations Board to do so.

When drafting the legislation for the Cleveland Plan, the teachers union was included in the discussions. The union was not involved in creating the Youngstown Plan.

“Your collective-bargaining agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on,” said Michele Pomerantz, the labor liaison for the Cleveland Metro Schools, about the Youngstown teachers’ union.

“It means: I am the CEO. I’m not appointed by a mayor. I am appointed by the Ohio Department of Education and I can look through that contract and say, ‘Let’s look at salaries. I want to re-negotiate those salaries now, and that’s what happens.’”

Also, under HB 70, once a public school is converted into a charter school, the CEO or mayor can ask the Ohio BOE and SERB to be removed from a collective-bargaining unit. Once this is done, employees will remain covered by existing agreements, but won’t be able to organize after the current agreement ends.

Emphasis on Charter Schools

Though HB 70 allows the conversion of public schools into charter schools, the success of such schools in the state has been murky.

Critics and proponents of the charter-school movement both say the state’s oversight of the schools and their sponsors have been negligent.

In November, Gov. John Kasich signed HB 2 that would increase transparency when it comes to charters and make them more accountable to taxpayers.

While the Cleveland Plan does not include provisions for converting schools to charter schools or firing entire school staffs, it does include measures to increase the number of high-performing public and charter schools.

“[The Cleveland Plan] does not call for turning public schools into charter schools, it calls for closing schools that are not showing any sort of improvement,” Ruiz said.

Youngstown and Beyond

Though the Cleveland Plan was designed specifically for that city’s schools, the Youngstown Plan isn’t specific to the city school district.

HB 70 provisions can be used in any district that receives an F on state report cards for three years in a row and has an academic distress commission in place.

“This has a huge impact, not just in Youngstown,” said Schiavoni. “The word ‘Youngstown’ is not in the bill. So it could be Youngstown today, but it could be the next school district that falls under academic emergency under a distress commission tomorrow.”

Lorain schools also has an academic distress commission in place and could be affected by HB 70.

TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among Youngstown State University, The University of Akron and The University of Cincinnati, and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator, The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio, both of Akron.