By Denise Dick
Two state lawmakers charge that the Youngstown City Schools Business Cabinet was a public body and that its behind-closed-doors meetings violated the Sunshine Law.
The cabinet devised the Youngstown Plan, the legislation that allows a chief executive officer to be appointed to manage and operate the city school district.
“These meetings were meetings about public education policy,” said Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan of Youngstown, D-58th. “Taxpayer dollars were affected with it, and it was a secret.”
The meetings purposely excluded parents and teachers, she said.
Lepore-Hagan and Rep. Teresa Fedor of Toledo, D-45th, want Richard Ross, state superintendent of public instruction, to resign.
“Education policy should not be crafted behind a veil of secrecy,” Fedor said. “The clandestine meetings by a group charged with creating the Youngstown Plan involved state officials discussing state education policy changes that directly led to new state law. The manner in which these meetings deliberately excluded participation from the public is deeply troubling and raises legitimate questions regarding whether Ohio sunshine laws were violated. Dr. Ross’s conflicting accounts of his involvement with the Youngstown takeover don’t pass the smell test.”
Thomas Humphries, president and CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, and a cabinet member, doesn’t believe the cabinet was a public body.
“I’m not an attorney, but I’ve been involved with the Sunshine Law for the last 20 years,” Humphries said. “I don’t believe we violated anything.”
Minutes of two cabinet meetings were distributed this week at a news conference of the Youngstown Warren Black Caucus. Jaladah Aslam, that group’s president, said someone mailed the minutes to Brenda Kimble, city school board president.
The minutes report Ross reminding those attending of the importance of confidentiality regarding the plan.
Beside Humphries, the other cabinet members were Bishop George Murry of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown; former schools Superintendent Connie Hathorn; Herb Washington, president of HLW Fast Track; Laura Meeks, former president of Eastern Gateway Community College; Jim Tressel, Youngstown State University president; retired Judge Robert Douglas of Youngstown Municipal Court; and Nick Santucci, the chamber’s manager of education and workforce development.
Minutes from the two meetings also list Ross; Jan Strasfeld, president of the Youngstown Foundation; state Rep. Sean O’Brien of Bazetta, D-63rd; a representative of the governor’s office and several representatives from the Ohio Department of Education as attendees at the meetings.
More than a year ago, Gov. John Kasich said at a public appearance he wanted to help the city schools and said if the community brought him a plan, he would work with the community.
After that, Humphries gathered people he believed were concerned about the schools and would be able to engage with the Ohio Department of Education and the administration to improve them, the chamber president has said.
Humphries said Wednesday the governor was not involved in the plan. “He [Kasich] said, ‘You guys need to fix it. Columbus can’t fix it.’” The school system is failing, the chamber president added.
Fedor believes the cabinet was a public body because it met to conduct public business.
Cleveland Atty. David Marburger, a Sunshine Law expert whose clients include The Vindicator, says the legislators may be right.
“It sounds to me as though this is operating as a pretend private undertaking when in fact it is orchestrated behind the scenes by the government to facilitate this proposed legislation and done in such a way to avoid having to open the process to the public and the press.” Marburger said.
Lepore-Hagan said Sunshine Law experts are researching the law about filing a motion in an appellate court.
“The basis is they broke the law, the Sunshine Law,” she said. “If that’s proven, they can file an injunction and find wrongdoing and force the resignation of the [state] superintendent and possibly invalidate the Youngstown Plan.”
Lepore-Hagan recalled a meeting before she took office with other incoming legislators and Kasich.
Kasich said “he wanted to shut down Youngstown City Schools and make one big charter school,” she said. “Then he denied it, and then he did it. This is something that’s been set into motion months and months ago, and the governor was waiting for the right time ...”