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Ohio School Board Wants More Info On Charter Scandal, Youngstown Take-over

Ohio’s top education leader took a grilling in his first interaction with the state board of education since the charter school data scrubbing scandal went public.

And, at the same meeting, Democrats on the Ohio Board of Education made it clear they see the state take-over of Youngstown city schools as another in a series of moves by Gov. John Kasich’s administration to promote charter schools.

At Tuesday's, meeting, board members seemed locked and loaded to fire one tough question after another over the data scrubbing scandal. After all, this was the board’s first opportunity to confront State Education Superintendent Richard Ross since July, when the state’s school choice director resigned after admitting that he excluded failing grades from charter school sponsor evaluations.

Among the questions the board wanted to know was if  Ross knew about the data rigging? Who else was involved? Will there be an independent investigation?

Ross started his portion of the board of education meeting by taking the issue head on.

“I’ve been very disappointed and upset about this,” Ross said. “It is something that is so counter to everything that I believe because I believe in accountability for all schools. Doesn’t matter if they’re community schools or traditional schools and that’s important because if we’re going to have accountability we’re going to have to have accurate data,” said Ross.

Since learning of the data scrubbing, the department of education threw out any completed charter school sponsor evaluations and created a new board to handle the evaluation process with more oversight. Ross’ administration also released more than 100,000 emails, text messages and other documents related to the incident. None of the records seem to indicate any involvement on Ross’ part.

“If somebody had shared that with me it wouldn’t have happened and we wouldn’t be here talking about it today,” Ross said.

Ross said no other employees have lost their jobs over this issue. And as far as a non-internal investigation, Ross explained that the inspector general and auditor are looking over all the documents.

“Personally I have no compunction because it’s probably to my benefit to have the inspector general come in and take a look,” Ross said. “I don’t want to be presumptuous to the inspector general but I certainly personally would be an advocate of him coming in.”

But when pressed, Ross would not say that he’d actually request an investigation by the inspector general.

Stephanie Dodd is part of a group of mostly Democratic school board members who not only want a third party investigation, but want that investigation to come from a non-partisan group. Part of the reason some say that’s needed is because of Ross’ close ties with Kasich. He was Kasich’s education advisor before becoming the state school superintendent. Dodd says an independent probe avoids the possible political pitfall that could come from a report from the IG or auditor.

“A Republican auditor and a Republican inspector general, who was appointed by the governor and also who used to work for the lieutenant governor so I think that in order to appropriately clear the air it would have to be somebody who was external and independent,” Dodd said.

Dodd was not completely satisfied with Ross’ appearance at the board meeting. She noted that she still had some unanswered questions and pointed out that Ross started to rattle off the same statements over and over again.

Since releasing its records, there have been questions about the culture of secrecy within the Ohio Department of Education and if the employees who knew about the data scrubbing felt comfortable enough to report that information to a supervisor.

Ross says they’re addressing that issue by crafting a new whistleblower policy that encourages employees to come forward without fear of retribution.

“A whistleblower policy is designed to do just that,” Ross said. “If someone feels intimidated or threatened within a department and they can’t share or don’t feel like they can share or they could be at risk if they share then I think that that’s the point and that’s what we want to do.”

Ross said the policy won’t stray from what’s already in statute for state employees.

In other business, Democrats on the state board of education made it clear they think that House Bill 70, a law for the state to take over control of the Youngstown school system, is about the Kasich administration promoting charter schools.

Legislators passed the bill in near secrecy in June with no public debate.  What it will establish is a 5-member Academic Distress Commission with a three-member majority chosen by the state school superintendent.

That group then appoints a CEO with extraordinary powers.  He could not only change the collective bargaining agreement with teachers but also create or contract with charter schools.

State school board member Patricia Bruns – a Cincinnati Democrat—says bypassing local elected officials including the school board is unconstitutional.

“Their idea is to take over the schools, dismantle what’s there, and dole them out to private, for-profit charters,” Bruns said.

At this week’s board meeting, member Mary Rose Oakar said she has received piles of letters from people around the state afraid of a similar takeover of their local schools in favor of charter schools. She asked Department of Education official Lonny Rivera how it was legal to eliminate a locally elected school board.

"I’ve never heard of erasing somebody’s election in that matter,” Oakar said. “So maybe I’m wrong about it unless they did some conduct problem or something you can kick somebody out of their position.”

Rivera, a former school superintendent at Oregon City Schools near Youngstown, answered that his department is just trying to help improve failing districts in what he called a “noble” effort.

“For me, if you’re going to lead people you’re going to need to get all kinds of individuals working together and not have it adversarial because those people are still representative,” Rivera said. “But, I also know that sometimes the adults can be the problem and sometimes they’ll stand in the way of allowing certain things to happen.”

Youngstown teachers and Democratic legislators have filed suit to stop House Bill 70 from taking effect.  Senator Joe Schiavoni and Representative Michelle Lapore-Hagan say they’ll introduce their own Youngstown bailout plan next week.