By Vince Guerrieri

Last November, Michele Lepore-Hagan was undergoing new member orientation in the Ohio House.

Lepore-Hagan, like many elected officials from the Youngstown area, had faced a contested Democratic primary but no opposition in the general election. She was succeeding her husband Bob, a longtime Mahoning Valley politician who had been term-limited out of the state house.

Gov. John Kasich, fresh off his landslide re-election, stopped in to say hello. When he asked her concerns, she said her primary concern was the Youngstown City Schools, which could lay claim to the title of the worst school district in the state.

[blocktext align=”right”]“Youngstown City Schools are such a mess that I want to just shut them down and open a great big charter school.”[/blocktext]It had been under academic distress for the past five years. Enrollment had dropped 21 percent since 2010, and of the more than 10,000 school-age children living in the city of Youngstown, more than half were going to school outside the district – the majority in what the state calls “online or site-based community school” – charter schools.

Lepore-Hagan told a local television station that Kasich – a man known for his emotional, off-the-cuff statements – said to her, “Youngstown City Schools are such a mess that I want to just shut them down and open a great big charter school.”

Lepore-Hagan’s account – disseminated by her husband on Twitter – was taken with a degree of skepticism, to say the least. The local newspaper, The Vindicator, said in an editorial, “The Republican governor will not push for a state takeover of the failing urban system unless the local community asks him to do so. Thus we put little stock in the ongoing political flap triggered by Democrat Hagan’s contention that Kasich told her he was ready to turn the public schools into charters.”

It doesn’t seem so far-fetched now. In fact, it seems all too plausible.

* * *

On July 16, Kasich signed House Bill 70 into law. The bill started out with bipartisan support, but on June 24, an amendment was introduced by Ohio Sen. Peggy Lehner (R-Kettering), the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. A total of 1,815 words of testimony were taken from four men, all in favor of the amendment: Youngstown State University President Jim Tressel, Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce President Tom Humphries, Bishop George Murry of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, and Connie Hathorn, a former Youngstown City Schools superintendent. Within 12 hours of the introduction of the amendment, it had passed the legislature.

Michele Lepore-Hagan [credit:]

Michele Lepore-Hagan [credit:]

The amendment, informally dubbed “the Youngstown Plan,” allows for the dissolution of the academic distress commission of any district that’s gotten an F grade for three years in a row or has been under academic distress for at least four years (Youngstown is the only school district that meets that qualification. Lorain – not coincidentally, another town that’s been hit hard by deindustrialization – has been under academic distress for two years).

Under the amendment, which was developed in secret and, according to Lepore-Hagan, in violation of state Sunshine Laws, a new academic distress commission would be formed, with five members: One a teacher appointed by the school board, three appointed by the state superintendent of schools, and one appointed by the mayor of Youngstown. (No city official testified on behalf of the amendment, but Bishop Murry mentioned this as a selling point. it’s worth mentioning that the current mayor of Youngstown is under indictment, but criminal investigations of public officials in Youngstown is nothing new; my high school diploma was signed by the Youngstown City Schools treasurer, who was later found to have embezzled more than $80,000 from the district, and in the early 2000s, a board member resigned as condition of theft charges against him being dropped.)

Those five members would appoint a chief executive officer for the school district, who would be given broad powers – which would get broader each successive year if the district doesn’t show improvement. For starters, the CEO can hire and transfer staff, and set compensation levels, curriculum, and class sizes. The CEO would then meet with community stakeholders – people like the ones who testified in favor of the amendment, as well as teachers and parents within the district – and put forth an education plan, which is expected to show immediate results.

[blocktext align=”left”]If the school doesn’t get a C on its state report card after one year, the CEO can fire administration or teachers and contract out operations – to a non-profit or for-profit entity – or close the school entirely.[/blocktext]If the school doesn’t get a C on its state report card after one year, the CEO can fire administration or teachers and contract out operations – to a non-profit or for-profit entity – or close the school entirely. If there is no C grade after two years, the CEO can “limit, suspend or alter any collective bargaining agreement” ratified after the bill became law in July. And all the students in the Youngstown City Schools are eligible for educational choice scholarships, allowing them – and the tax money that follows them – to go to participating private schools, including the city’s Catholic schools. It’s worth reminding that the bishop testified in favor of this plan.

Clearly, something needed to be done with the Youngstown City Schools. But is this it?

“The district has been in academic distress for the better part of the last decade,” Hathorn said in his testimony. Longer than that, even. It’s easy to say that the Youngstown City Schools, like the Mahoning Valley itself, has never recovered from Black Monday – the day in September 1977 when the Lykes Corporation, parent of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, announced a mill closing at the end of the week, throwing 5,000 people out of work and starting the surprisingly rapid decline of industry in the Youngstown area. But it’s not entirely accurate. The Youngstown City Schools are actually a mess 60 years in the making.

* * *

As World War II ended, it seemed like a golden age beckoned for Youngstown. The first part of the 20th century saw the growth of industry, which led to the accumulation of wealth for an upper class, as well as the growth of organized labor, which allowed workers in the mills and factories that lined the Mahoning River to have one of the highest standards of living in the country.

Steel mills, Youngstown, Mahoning County, OH. [credit: Jay Williams, via Wikimedia Commons

Steel mills, Youngstown, Mahoning County, OH. [credit: Jay Williams, via Wikimedia Commons

Steel would continue to be produced, and thanks to foreign rebuilding after World War II and the explosion of domestic construction that was held off during the war, there was no reason to believe it wouldn’t continue to be produced in Youngstown. The city’s population exploded in the first quarter of the 20th century, and was 168,000 by 1950. The city government expected – and banked – on continued population growth.

City planners foresaw the population soaring to between 200,000 and 250,000. Water, sewer, and power lines were added to land in the city, on the far west side near the city limits, and on the far east side. The land on the west side filled in with homes – and in the 1950s, new schools. The land on the east side didn’t – partly due to redlining, which in the late 1930s had labeled a lot of the area as undesirable. Homes were built, but they were built in the suburbs that had been largely rural before – Canfield, Poland, Austintown, and Boardman.

By the late 1960s, Youngstown – like most other cities in the industrial Northeast – was starting to see problems with crime, poverty, and institutional racism. The school district faced an additional problem: Lack of money.

The city schools – serving more than 40,000 baby boomers as the 1960s dawned – were regarded as some of the best in the state. But by 1968, circumstances were so dire that the district had to close from Thanksgiving until the new year because it had run out of money. The city hadn’t passed a levy in six tries over the previous two years, and teachers had gone so long without a raise that they went on strike in 1966 – the first teachers’ strike in the country. Teachers’ strikes would become a regular occurrence in Youngstown (I went through two; my brother went through three. In fact, one of my high school teachers said he measured his time before retirement not in years, but in the number of times he could potentially walk a picket line).

[blocktext align=”right”]Politics has long been both blood and spectator sport in the Youngstown area, and that attitude filtered down to the school board.[/blocktext]But closing the schools earned Youngstown the most ignominious of distinctions: The Fickle Finger of Fate from the television show Laugh-In. Chastened, voters passed a levy that spring. But the problems kept people moving to the suburbs – or parochial schools. Youngstown had (and still has) two Catholic high schools, and they were kept full with the children and grandchildren of the largely Catholic immigrants who came to the city during the boom years.

When the mills closed in the 1970s and 80s, the ongoing movement of residents to the suburbs was compounded by an exodus from the Youngstown area entirely. Faced with an enormous loss of tax revenue from the mills themselves as well as the homeowners who had worked there, the Youngstown City Schools started closing buildings – but not fast enough.

By the time I started high school in 1991, there were five public high schools in the city. I went to Chaney High School on the West Side – by then regarded as the white side of town (the building was built in 1955, but the school was established in 1926, and named for a former superintendent elected to county office on the Ku Klux Klan ticket). After my sophomore year, South High School closed. South was the second high school built in the city, in 1910, and the oldest and largest building in use as a school. Behind it were a stadium, which served as the first home field for Youngstown State University, and a field house, which actually served as home for one year in 1945 for a professional basketball team, the Youngstown Bears of the National Basketball League, the forerunner of the NBA. (The Bears’ most famous player was probably Press Maravich, who was father and coach to Pistol Pete.)

[blocktext align=”left”]…on the whole, Ohio charter schools are derided as some of the worst run in the country (at a conference, one expert said, “Be glad you have Nevada, so you’re not the worst”).[/blocktext]By the time my brother graduated high school in 1998, the district – which had become the first in the state to be put under fiscal emergency, two years earlier – was down to three public high schools. East had closed. Today, there are two: A new East High School, and a Chaney campus for a STEM school. A 2001 bond issue allowed for the construction of East, an addition and renovation that doubled the size of Chaney, and construction of a host of other middle and elementary schools.

But the district – and the city – kept hemorrhaging people. The city population, which once peaked around 160,000 and was 100,000 as recently as 1980, is now down to 65,000. With a median household income around $25,000, the city is the poorest in the state and one of the poorest in the country. There are actually a higher percentage of adults in the city without a high school diploma (20 percent) than there are with at least a bachelor’s degree (16 percent). The problems in the city schools go deeper than the board and administration – although they don’t help.

Politics has long been both blood and spectator sport in the Youngstown area, and that attitude filtered down to the school board. The Youngstown school board was mocked as a collection of dull normals in a Plain Dealer editorial – in 1993. Since then, the district has run through a succession of superintendents, with the most recent one, Hathorn, being run off by a board that was called out of control by the head of the local NAACP.

But if the Youngstown City Schools are in bad shape, then charter schools are worse. Admittedly, there are some doing good work, but on the whole, Ohio charter schools are derided as some of the worst run in the country (at a conference, one expert said, “Be glad you have Nevada, so you’re not the worst”). They have terrible financial and academic oversight: an Akron Beacon Journal analysis reported that since 2001, $27.3 million has been misspent by charter schools, and the state’s school-choice director, David Hansen, resigned after it was revealed he was removing failing charter schools from state evaluations.

Ohio Governor John R. Kasich [credit: By Office of Ohio Governor John R. Kasich, via Wikimedia Commons]

Ohio Governor John R. Kasich [credit: Office of Ohio Governor John R. Kasich, via Wikimedia Commons]

And while John Kasich and the state government have no trouble identifying problems in the Youngstown City Schools (to be honest, it’s not difficult to do), they are reluctant to take on charter schools. Despite entreaties from state board members to do so, Kasich doesn’t want to investigate Hansen, calling it a political sideshow. Of course, I’m sure it’s coincidence that Hansen’s wife Beth is Kasich’s former chief of staff and currently managing his presidential bid.

Just like I’m sure it’s coincidence that White Hat Management and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, the two largest charter school managers in Ohio, getting $1.76 billion in taxpayer money since 1998, have funneled more than $6 million to Republican candidates in that same span.

House Bill 70 passed quickly, but the same sense of urgency wasn’t accorded House Bill 2, which would make charter schools more transparent and accountable. The bill passed in the House, was modified in the Senate, and the House adjourned for the summer without passing the revised bill.

Things are bad in the Youngstown City Schools, and have been for some time.

But anyone who thinks things can’t get worse lacks imagination.

Vince Guerrieri has spent pretty much his whole life in the Rust Belt. He was born in Youngstown three weeks before the mills started closing, and left there without really escaping. He’s a Bowling Green State University graduate, spent 15 years in newspapers, and lives with his wife and daughter in suburban Cleveland, where he’s slowly trending toward respectability (and he’s just as surprised by that as you are).

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