Ohio Supreme Court says takeover of schools was constitutional

By: - May 14, 2020 12:40 am

Courtesy of the Ohio Supreme Court

The Ohio Supreme Court deemed the takeover of certain academically distressed school districts constitutional in a 5-2 Wednesday decision.

The split decision saw two justices only concurring in part, and two justices dissenting.

The decision revolved around House Bill 70, passed in 2015, which allowed schools districts and community schools to create “community learning centers” in schools with low academic performance.

After being introduced in the House, considered by the House Education Committee and passed by the full House, the Senate Education Committee took up the bill, and added amendments.

“A significant portion of the amended bill consisted of revisions to the existing law on academic-distress commissions,” court documents stated. The revisions included a requirement that any district with an overall state report card grade of F for three consecutive years be appointed a chief executive officer with “complete operational, managerial, and instructional control over the district.”

After several other amendments were also added, the Senate passed the bill and then-Gov. John Kasich signed the bill into law. 

The Youngstown School Board, lead plaintiffs on the court case, sued to challenge whether the passage of HB 70 was constitutional. A trial court said the board had a likelihood of success in court, but that the case didn’t present an issue of public interest.

The Tenth District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the state as well, saying the House Bill didn’t violate the constitution, leading to the Supreme Court consideration.

“A bill allowing school boards and communities to jointly provide supportive services to schools that is transformed overnight into an amended bill imposing the installation of unelected CEOs imbued with complete operational, managerial, and instructional control of school districts must comply with the Three Reading Rule,” the school said in proposing the case to the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote the lead opinion on the case, and said the three-consideration rule “does not require any specific level of deliberation or debate as long as the bill is not vitally altered,” and the court would not be “directly policing every detail of the legislative amendment process when bills are passed containing a consistent theme.”

O’Connor also said the bill “had a common purpose of seeking to improve underperforming schools, even though there are differences in the tools through which each version pursued that goal,” in the lead opinion agreeing with the state’s position.

“The General Assembly…may lawfully influence the authority of school boards in any manner of ways, large and small,” O’Connor wrote.

Justices Patrick F. Fischer and Judith L. French concurred with the decision, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in part and only in part to the judgment, along with Justice R. Patrick DeWine. Justices Michael P. Donnelly and Justice Melody J. Stewart dissented. 

Kennedy agreed that the House bill didn’t violate the three-consideration rule or the right of voters to decide the organization of the board of education, but did disagree with O’Connor’s opinion that the bill was considered on three separate occasions.

In disagreeing with the majority opinion, Donnelly called the decision an “egregious display of constitutional grade inflation.”

The dissenting justice argued that it was “demonstrably untenable” to say the bill received three considerations.

“Like a thief in the night, (House Bill 70) appeared without warning to unsuspecting lawmakers and the public they serve, and with no opportunity for reflection, public discourse, or debate, slipped away untouched with the complete power to displace local public control of Ohio public school districts,” Donnelly wrote.

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.