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Critics Of Charter Schools Say Ohio Supreme Court Ruling Raises Political Questions

The Ohio Supreme Court decision that nearly a hundred million dollars in equipment bought by charter school operators with tax money belongs to those operators and not to the schools has raised more anger against the industry.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed by 10 Northeast Ohio charter schools against the for-profit management company they had contracted with, Akron-based White Hat Management. Seven of the 10 schools had serious academic problems during White Hat’s time in charge.

But five Ohio Supreme Court justices said that didn’t matter. They agreed that the contracts between the charter schools and White Hat were enforceable, so the charters were obliged to buy back school equipment that White Hat bought with state money.  And the court didn’t rule at all on the use of public money, on transparency or on academic performance involving charter schools or operators.

Republican strategist Mark Weaver teaches law at Ohio State and the University of Akron, and also represents some charter schools, though not the ones in this case. He says the justices were correct in dealing just with the contractual issues and kicking the other questions back to state lawmakers.

“The Legislature has created the community or charter school system which allows operators to make a profit,” Weaver said. “And for those who get upset about that, remember Uber – they make a profit, but they wind up helping consumers along the way. Apple makes a profit but all of us have benefited from that. And lawmakers have said, ‘Let’s experiment with charter schools and see if we can give parents more choices.’”

While many were hoping the decision would more clearly define laws on charter schools and operators, others say this is what they expected.

Sandy Theis is the executive director of ProgressOhio, which has long been critical of Ohio’s charter-school industry.

“I wasn’t surprised at all by the ruling, and I think it just confirms what we’ve known all along" Theis said. "And that is that the worst performing charter schools own all three branches of state government.”

Theis says Gov. John Kasich has taken no leadership to clean up charter schools, and state lawmakers have been sitting on a charter-school reform bill.

“And now we have the judicial branch that basically says one of the worst performing charter school operator gets to keep $90 million worth of desks and computers and other things that the taxpayers paid for, and that if the school wants that equipment back they need to buy it back from White Hat,” Theis said. “That’s insane.”

And Catherine Turcer with the government watchdog group Common Cause Ohio says it’s interesting to look at the political donations made by White Hat’s owner David Brennan.

Together with Brennan's wife Ann, Turcer says over the last five years the Brennans gave $750,000 to elected officials and other candidates, and more than half a million dollars to Ohio Republican Party committees – some of which makes its way to candidates for the Ohio Supreme Court.

“It’s always important to follow the money, and to see if there are connections," Turcer said. "We need to be really alert to corruption in government and to alert to changes in regulations that benefit donors. Folks like the Brennans do not give campaign contributions just because they like candidates. They want something in return.”

But one conservative legal expert says donations don’t buy decisions.

“It’s quite scurrilous to suggest that judges or other public officials have based their decisions on something other than the law as they interpreted it without evidence of that,” said Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Adler said allegations that the Brennans’ political donations have influenced this ruling are unfair.

“There’s no evidence that anyone on this court is going to get rich or not get rich because of their decision in a heated contract dispute like this," Adler said. "Unless and until there is such evidence, we should assume that the judges had a good faith disagreement over how to apply contract on a case like this.”

Though Ohio Supreme Court justices run on a non-partisan ballot, the five justices who signed onto the final decision in the White Hat case are all Republicans. There were two dissents, which were notable in their strong language blasting both White Hat and the Court’s judgment. One of the dissenters, Paul Pfeifer, is also a Republican, while the other, William O’Neill, is the court’s lone Democrat.

A message left seeking comment from White Hat Management was not returned.