Youngstown schools have troubles that few have seen

Youngstown schools have troubles that few have seen

It is difficult to believe that as bad as things were the last time there was an election for the Youngstown Board of Education that they could be worse today.

If ever there was a time to throw the rascals out, this would be it.

But it’s never as easy to solve real problems as it is to come up with catchy adages.

Vindicator editors conducted endorsement interviews with four of the five candidates for the city board of education. One of the incumbents, Dominic Modarelli, declined to attend an interview, making him ineligible for an endorsement.

Those we talked to included Lock P. Beachum Sr., 75, a retired teacher and principal in the Youngstown school district who is seeking his third term, and Jacqueline Taylor, 58, a research economist at Youngstown State University who is seeking re-election. By conventional wisdom, they would be the “rascals” worthy of being thrown out.

But while Taylor and Beachum are not always on the same page, neither fits the rascal mold. Both are clearly invested in making Youngstown a better school district, and there is reason to give them another four years to do the best that they can to improve the district.

Youngstown is a school district that is nearing completion of a building program that will give it one of the best arrays of new schools in the state. Twelve new schools have been built, Woodrow Wilson Middle School is under construction and will open next fall, and 12 old buildings have been razed. The lion’s share of the cost has been covered by the state of Ohio.

The challenges

And yet, students are leaving Youngstown schools in droves — for charter schools, voucher schools and open enrollment districts — and the academic performance of those left behind continues to slide. Meanwhile, the district faces enormous financial challenges because a four-year, 9.5-mill emergency tax levy passed by city school district voters last year that was projected to produce $5.3 million a year is going to produce only $3.1 million.

This triple whammy of massive investment in new buildings, outward migration of students and significant losses in tax revenue is more the fault of misfeasance and malfeasance by legislators in Columbus than by members of the Youngstown Board of Education. Challenged by the Ohio Supreme Court to find a more equitable way of funding the operation of schools in the state, the General Assembly could have responded with true reform, but chose instead to placate the court by throwing billions of dollars into construction. At the same time, legislators pursued a policy of diverting more and more money from public schools to charter and private schools, a move that not only appealed to free-market ideologues in Columbus but to the charter school proponents who had been shoveling money into their campaign coffers.

But that’s an old story, and Youngstown’s problems are very much a fact of life today.

Of the candidates in this race, we believe Beachum and Taylor are two of the best, and we recommend their re-election.

Beachum can rightly claim that his voice has been one of those in recent years calling for Superintendent Wendy Webb and other administrators and teachers to be held to account for the district’s failure to meet not only what should be its educational goals, but its educational obligations.

Beachum gave Webb a 4 on her last evaluation, which was the median score of those given by seven board members. In his interview, Beachum made it clear that he is uninterested in hearing any more excuses for poor performance.

Taylor, on the other hand, gave Webb a 7.2, the second highest number among the seven members. That number would strike most observers as unrealistically high, given the district’s record, but Taylor defends it as fair. She acknowledges, however, that there is a need for corrective action. We will take her at her word that she will be not only fair but firm in demanding such corrections.

The challengers

The two challengers in this race are Rachel Hanni, 24, a recent graduate of Youngstown State University who has been doing substitute teaching in the district, and Andrea Mahone, 45, a community youth director for the Mahoning County Juvenile Justice Center.

Hanni is the daughter of Don Hanni III, a former board member who sometimes had the right instincts about what Youngstown students needed but whose combative style proved counterproductive.

We saw in Rachel Hanni an obvious desire to improve education in the city schools because, it became clear, she believes that the students deserve a chance at success. Too many students in the city schools face incredible challenges she said, and the school district must respond to their needs.

Mahone also, obviously, feels strongly about giving students the tools they need to succeed, and we were impressed by her suggestion that parents should be held to a higher standard and pressured to become more involved in the children’s academic lives. Between the two candidates, we felt Hanni was the stronger choice.

The Vindicator is endorsing Beachum, Taylor and Hanni with the hope that they will be able to work with the four other members on the board to improve Youngstown schools and with the expectation that they will be firm in demanding improvements.

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