BY MARILOU JOHANEK
It was probably an accident. Ohio Gov. John Kasich let his public education mask slip. He ranted when he should have relaxed.
What Mr. Kasich blurted out to a roomful of incoming legislators, assembled in Columbus for an orientation session last November, was enormously revealing. It was prophetic about a secret effort, already begun, to erode local control of Youngstown Schools and any Ohio district like it.
Representative-elect Michele Lepore-Hagan, a newly elected Youngstown Democrat, wanted to talk to the governor about the troubled school district she represented. “And he threw a tablet into the air and said those Youngstown City Schools are in such a mess I want to shut them down and put one great big charter school in there.”
Later a committee, quietly spearheaded by the Kasich administration, would sign off on a plan to change the Youngstown district and others like it in the state. The plan, crafted behind closed doors by the Youngstown City Schools Business Cabinet, could put traditional public schools out of business .
The cabinet included business executives, representatives of the governor’s staff, Ohio Department of Education officials including state Superintendent Richard Ross, higher education leaders, a retired municipal judge, and Youngstown Schools Superintendent Connie Hathorn.
Mr. Hathorn resigned effective June 30. That was enough for the so-called Youngstown plan to become an amendment to another piece of state legislation introduced, approved by committees, and voted out of both the House and Senate in a single day.
Mr. Kasich quickly signed the measure into law. His agenda was clear in November. He told Ms. Lepore-Hagan that a committee had been assembled to discuss the Youngstown problem but she couldn’t participate “because you’ll make it too political. You’ll muddy it all up.”
Instead, Mr. Kasich suggested she talk with state Rep. Sean O’Brien (D., Bazetta), the only lawmaker he would work with on Youngstown Schools. Ms. Lepore-Hagan informed the governor that Mr. O’Brien represents Warren Schools and that she was the elected official in the Youngstown district.
“The people who voted for me send their children to this school and I represent them, these kids,” she said. “It’s my neighborhood, my district.”
The incoming freshman, married to former longtime state Rep. Bob Hagan, said an angry Mr. Kasich abruptly ended the meeting. The lawmaker persisted. “Governor, my parents were both teachers in the Youngstown City Schools, and this is very important to me.”
He replied, “talk to Sean,” and left, she recounted. Ms. Lepore-Hagan asked Mr. O’Brien about the Youngstown group, but says he indicated he didn’t know anything about it.
Mr. O’Brien attended a May 21, 2015, session of the business cabinet, according to minutes of the meeting reported in the Youngstown Vindicator.
Those minutes also noted that state Superintendent Ross began the conversation by “reminding everyone that confidentiality amongst the cabinet is essential until the plan begins to take place.”
At the same meeting, the panel discussed how to address the “potential concerns of the public” and how to “avoid bad PR.”
Ms. Lepore-Hagan said she and other House colleagues had two hours to look at the amendment to the bipartisan education bill before it sailed through the General Assembly. “Every Democrat that was a co-sponsor lined up in the chamber and took their names off of the bill,” she said.
The Youngstown representative believes she was deliberately shut out of discussions about the school system in her district. “It was intentional to keep people from asking questions — the community, parents, teachers, elected officials,” she said.
The plan dooms the district to failure with impossible challenges and deadlines, Ms. Lepore-Hagan added. “It’s about dismantling what we know of public schools in Youngstown.”
“It’s forcing these kids into failed for-profit charter schools that are doing worse than the public schools.” But, the resigned rookie concluded, “this has been his [Gov. Kasich’s] plan all along.
“They [administration strategists] were just waiting to find a bill that was similar to drop education language into. While it specifically targeted Youngstown City Schools, it will spread across the state. Lorain is next.”
What happened in Youngstown was an abuse of power in the same way that Senate Bill 5 was a blatant power grab for collective bargaining rights. Mr. Kasich is unmasked.
Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at: email@example.com