COLUMBUS — Representatives of Youngstown City Schools had their initial day in court Tuesday, hoping to delay the implementation of state law changes that would place an appointed chief executive officer in control of the district.
Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Jenifer French must decide on the groups' request for a preliminary injunction on HB 70, the so-called Youngstown plan that was passed in short order by the legislature prior to its summer recess, over objections from Democratic members and school officials.
A trial on the issue won't take place next year. Absent the injunction, the legislation will take effect next month, with a new Youngstown schools CEO appointed before the end of the year.
"It'll be hard to reverse at that point," said Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni (D-Boardman), who testified as witness for the plaintiffs Tuesday.
HB 70, which was passed by lawmakers and signed into law earlier this year, requires the creation of a new academic distress commission and the appointment of a chief executive officer to oversee the school district. The latter will have authority to replace school administrators and staff and close schools.
But the local school board, Youngstown-area lawmakers and others were not involved in the development of the legislation, which was kept under wraps until the day lawmakers OK'd the amendment.
The school district, teachers and school employee unions and a local resident subsequently filed suit.
Plaintiffs in the case argued that the original version of the legislation dealt with the establishment of community learning centers and was widely supported in the Ohio House when it passed in May.
But the legislation was amended in June to provide a means for the takeover of long-failing districts. The Youngstown district is initially affected, but similarly situated schools would fall under the same law.
The legislation passed the Senate on the same day that the amendments were added and signed by Gov. John Kasich shortly thereafter, after the Ohio House concurred.
Plaintiffs say the law changes are unconstitutional, eliminating the power of an elected school board and allowing "an unelected CEO to eliminate every school within a city school district, thus eliminating the right for electors in a city school district to determine the organization and number of members of a city school district board of education."
Kasich and his administration have defended the plan, saying the district had failed for too long to deal with issues. He also has said that local leaders were involved in developing the legislation.
Legal counsel for the state argued in court filings that the law changes were proper, calling the lawsuit "little more than a thinly disguised effort to re-argue the policy merits of HB 70, a question for the general assembly, not this court."
They added, "Having lost the legislative battle, plaintiffs now conjure constitutional claims where none exist."
Tuesday's hearing included lengthy testimony from several state lawmakers and individuals involved in development the Youngstown plan.
Brenda Kimble, president of the Youngstown school board, said she learned of the plan from news accounts and Valley lawmakers after the amendment came to light.
She told the court that she's concerned that existing programs for the schools 5,400 students will be dismantled, with no recourse for elected school board members.
"The first thing that hit me was, what happened to the vote of the people...," she said. "Now that this bill is coming into place and telling the community, telling me personally, that you don't count."
Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber head Tom Humphries was pressed in testimony on the secretive nature of the development of the schools legislation, outside of the usual legislative process, and the timing of its release to the public.
The goal, Humphries said, was to improve the performance of the city school district and thus position the community for better economic opportunities.
"Youngstown city school has consistently failed..." he said. "I felt it was time that we got more engaged."