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Y’town’s new schools CEO must shun special interests

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Justin Jennings, the new head of the Youngstown City School District, says he wants to involve the elected school board in the revival of the academically troubled urban system.

Jennings, who is coming to Youngs-town from Muskegon schools in Michigan, can be forgiven his naivet . He has been in the Mahoning Valley for only a month.

Thus, as a public service we offer him this insight: The Youngstown Board of Education has become the graveyard of qualified, experienced, talented educators.

At some point in their careers, individuals with expertise – and academic credentials – in public education find themselves undermined by board members who are elected by the people in what is largely a popularity contest.

Jennings, who is scheduled to begin his assignment as CEO Aug. 1, will quickly learn that the board of education is an impediment to what he wants to accomplish in the district.

Therefore, we offer this advice to the new leader: Forget about the school board for now. You are answerable to the state-mandated Youngstown City School District Academic Distress Commission that hired you.

Because the Youngstown system had failed academically for at least four straight years under school board governance, the state stepped in and declared an academic emergency.

Recognizing that Youngstown’s situation was dire, then Gov. John Kasich asked a group of Mahoning Valley business and community leaders to come up with a new way of educating the city’s children.

The leaders concluded – as we had a long time ago – that the school board was the problem and, therefore, a different entity was needed to govern the district. In addition, the leaders believed the traditional position of superintendent did not provide the required power and authority to deal with the academic implosion.

Distress commission

Their recommendations were crystalized in House Bill 70, which created a special academic distress commission to take control of school districts under academic emergency. The measure also established the position of chief executive officer, appointed by the commission, with sweeping powers.

HB 70 passed the Republican- controlled General Assembly and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Kasich.

It was launched in Youngstown in 2015, and the distress commission hired Krish Mohip, a veteran educator from Chicago, in 2016 as CEO.

Mohip’s introductory meeting with The Vindicator’s Editorial Board was much like Jenning’s first get-together with us on May 9. There was optimism, excitement and a desire to work closely with the board of education.

In the end, Mohip chose not to have his three-year contract renewed and will be leaving at the end of July. His relationship with the school board is largely nonexistent.

Indeed, Mohip’s opinions of some of the school board members bring to mind the views of another highly qualified educator who had the misfortune of having to answer to the board of education.

Dr. Connie Hathorn came on the scene when the urban system needed someone with his background, expertise and vision. Hathorn faced a monumental task of having to save the sinking ship.

But while he succeeded in restructuring the schools and launching many creative programs designed to enhance learning, he wasn’t able to overcome the constant interference by school board members.

When he left, Hathorn told Vindicator writers that the school board was one of the greatest impediments to the academic resurrection of the district.

We haven’t yet heard from Mohip, who is on family leave, but we’re confident he would echo Hathorn’s sentiments about the board.

In light of that history, Jennings would be well-advised not to let the board of education members have a say in the day-to-day operation of the district.

House Bill 70 gives the CEO the power to hire and fire administrators, teachers and other staff. He may also have the authority – depending on one’s interpretation of the law – to set aside labor contracts.

“I want to hold people accountable for teaching and learning in the classroom,” Jennings said during his meeting with the Editorial Board. “I want to show a better product.”

To accomplish that, Jennings will need to be free of interference from the Youngstown Board of Education. He must exert his authority or else he’ll become another victim of the special interests that have destroyed the urban school district.