COLUMBUS- State Reps. Michele Lepore-Hagan (D-Youngstown), Joe Miller (D-Amherst) and Kent Smith (D-Euclid) today issued a letter to Ohio Auditor Keith Faber calling for an immediate audit of the Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland school districts to finally bring transparency in taxpayer spending to these communities after they were taken over by the state’s Academic Distress Commission (ADC).
In 2015, the General Assembly enacted HB 70, placing the Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland public schools under the control of unelected, unaccountable Academic Distress Commissions (ADCs) and appointed CEOs. From 2015 to 2021, parents, teachers, community leaders, education experts and others presented the legislature with overwhelming and uncontroverted evidence that HB 70 was a complete and utter failure. Among its many shortcomings, ADCs and CEOs were not required to provide financial information to each district’s elected school board or residents.
“The audit is an essential step toward restoring the public's trust in the school system that was undermined because HB 70 enabled the ADCs and CEOs to avoid scrutiny as they spent, and likely misspent, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. We need to know where those dollars went and why,” Lepore-Hagan said. “The state report cards issued from 2015-2021 clearly indicate the money wasn't used to educate students.”
The state budget (HB 110) passed in June 2021 finally heeded the fervent and repeated calls for the repeal of HB 70 and included language that created a pathway out of ADC control. Districts were asked to submit a three-year academic improvement plan to the state Superintendent. These plans were accepted by the Ohio Department of Education on Dec. 3, 2021.
Over the next three years, the State Board will evaluate whether the benchmarks outlined in the academic improvement plan are being met. If met, the ADC is dissolved. Failing to meet a majority of the benchmarks would once again subject the school district to an ADC. The state auditor is required to complete a one-time performance audit of the school districts as part of this three-year period, imposing for the first time in years accountability on the ADCs and CEOs who had complete control of each district’s finances.
“For too long, Ohio taxpayers have been kept in the dark about the free rein the CEO’s had under the ‘oversight’ of the Academic Distress Commission. We believe that a performance audit as far out as three years is not satisfactory,” said Miller. “This information is needed much sooner to help districts meet their improvement plans. The flaws of this failed experiment by the state should be made public.”
While overseeing these local school districts, the ADCs were not required to provide financial information to either the elected board of education or broader public. After calls from community members and growing concerns about the lack of accountability in spending by the CEOs of these ADCs, Reps. Lepore-Hagan and Miller (co-sponsored by Rep. Smith) introduced HB 112 on Feb. 16, 2021. HB 112 would have required a performance audit within 90 days after the effective date of the legislation. HB 110, however, does not specify a time within the three-year evaluation period that the school district audits will be performed, raising concerns from local leaders that benchmarks won’t be met if the necessary spending information continues to be withheld.
“It was the State of Ohio that took over the Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland school districts, so we are asking for the state to provide meaningful oversight of these three districts. Since local leaders have had their authority removed, it is important that the Auditor hold the Columbus-appointed CEOs of these districts accountable,” said Smith. “We know that local leaders will one day regain control of their districts. These performance audits are critical to making sure that when that happens, they are still operational for the children and families that they are supposed to be serving.”