Transforming Governance in Ohio's Urban Districts


Is it time for Ohio to consider new forms of school governance for its
most troubled school districts, and if so, what might alternatives look like?  

Ohio’s current patchwork system of 610 local school districts managed
by elected school boards (plus 300+ independently managed charter schools and
dozens of vocational schools and county educational service centers) goes back
to the Progressive Era of the late 19th century. The belief at the
time was that all children needed a basic education and the best way to ensure
that would happen was by empowering an elected group of civic-minded leaders to
run the schools. Columbia University’s Gene Maeroff captured the ideal when he
wrote, “A local board of education is – in its ideal form – a group of
citizen-volunteers who give unselfishly of themselves, usually without
remuneration, to look after the affairs of the school system and, by extension,
the community.”

This system of local control may have worked well for communities during
much of the 20th century, but in recent decades some major urban
school districts have fallen into fiscal and academic bankruptcy with elected
school boards at the helm. Mayors in these cities have stepped in to take
charge of their public schools. Don McAdams, president of the Center for Reform
of School Systems, explains:

The move to mayoral
control of urban districts happens not just because policy makers believe
education is integral to the success of a city and must be aligned with the
other functions of city government; it occurs also, perhaps, primarily, because
policy makers believe that elected board bring personal and special interest
agendas to the board table, micromanage, and make it almost impossible for
superintendents to manage. Sadly, this is often the case, and one of the
reasons such cities as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and
Boston, to name some of the most well-known cities with appointed boards, have
chosen this governance model.

Mayoral control of schools is just one option for trying to take
control of school districts with elected school boards in order to fix them or
at least pull them out of fiscal and/or academic turmoil. States have tried
forced mergers of districts, state takeovers, and market competition through
charter schools and education management organizations. It is clear that
tolerance for long-suffering school districts overseen by troubled elected
school boards at the expense of student learning has dried up among many lawmakers,
mayors, business leaders, and others concerned about student learning.  

In Ohio, Cleveland’s mayor gained significant authority over the public
schools in 1997 while troubled districts like Youngstown faced state sanctions
and takeover. There are other long-suffering districts in the Buckeye State
where it is clear that the elected school board are incapable of providing the sustained
leadership necessary for helping all kids learn while also their districts
operate within their means fiscally. In fact, Ohio currently has 6 school districts
rated Academic Watch, and another 8
districts on the state’s fiscal emergency list.

The time is right for Ohio to debate the pros and cons of alternatives
to the elected school board in those districts that are struggling perennially
to deliver results academically and fiscally. Here at Fordham, we are not
advocating for any of the following alternative governance options, but do
think it important that alternatives be sketched out and debated as there are
likely to be more districts in Ohio facing academic and fiscal emergencies in
coming months and years as the economy struggles to improve and increased
demands are placed on public schools to perform.

Options for District Governance

State takeover – academic

If a public school district is rated poorly enough for long enough
(rated “Academic Emergency” and has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress for
four or more consecutive years), an academic
distress commission
is put in place jointly by the state superintendent and
district’s board president to assist the district in improving its academic

Ohio law states that each distress commission must consist of five
voting members, three of whom are appointed by the state superintendent and two
of whom must be residents of that school district and appointed by the
district’s board of education.

The commission has ultimate authority and supersedes the voice of the
district’s board. The commission is allowed to replace or reassign
administrators, contract with a private entity to operate schools or the
district, and establish a budget for the district. The commission is in place
until the district achieves a “Continuous Improvement” or better rating for two
of three consecutive years.  The state
superintendent may also elect to dissolve the commission if s/he deems the
district fit to perform adequate without the commission’s oversight.

Only one district in the entire state – Youngstown – has been subject
to this provision, and no other Ohio districts have academic performance poor
enough to invoke it. Further, the Youngstown experience has shown this approach
to lead to little
real improvements
. Last year we reported on Youngstown’s academic
turnaround plan:

The plan lays out several goals (with a
2015 deadline), including:

  • Moving the district from Academic Emergency to
    Continuous Improvement;
  • Having all subgroups meeting Adequate Yearly Progress
    in reading and math and achieving a Performance  Index of at least
  • Having all subgroups meet value-added and graduation
  • Increasing enrollment by at least 300 students; and
  • Decreasing the number of students identified for
    special education by five percent (from 20 to 15).

These are all
worthwhile goals. But the strategies named for accomplishing these are broad
and unfocused, expensive, and misdirected. The most egregious such initiatives

  • Reducing student-teacher ratios even further for grades
    K-1 to 15:1 ($2 million by itself);
  • Deploying a “comprehensive system of outreach and
    support for families and non-academic experiences for students” which
    includes creating a “community asset map” and other strategies to engage
    parents; and
  • Creating leadership teams at every level – district,
    building, and grade – whose sole purpose is to foster “collaboration,
    trust; and communication.”

(There are a mere two
strategies that seem worthwhile: recruiting highly-qualified preschool teachers
and intervening with struggling readers and writers.) The level of vagueness
and wishful thinking in the plan is staggering. The district will deploy
millions of dollars to reduce class-sizes, yet it doesn’t acknowledge the
preeminence of teacher quality in lifting student achievement. Youngstown has
no strategy for recruiting highly effective teachers, identifying or developing
those that aren’t effective, or retaining those who are. The solution is to
simply put more teachers into classrooms without a plan for improving their

As the experience of Youngstown shows, for an academic distress
commission to effectively improve student achievement, members of the
commission would need to demonstrate bold leadership and a laser focus on
meaningful reforms. However, as current state law does not give distress
commission the authority to force consequential personnel changes to a district,
like voiding the collective bargaining agreement or forcing mass dismissal and
replacement of ineffective staff, it’s unlikely to be a meaningful tool
elsewhere in the state.

State takeover – fiscal

The Auditor of State may declare a district to be in fiscal emergency for a variety of
reasons, most usually because the district has an operating deficit for the
current school year equal to a significant portion of the previous year’s
operating revenue, and because a levy has not passed or an adequate plan has
been submitted by the district to raise the revenue or prevent further fiscal
decline.  The State Auditor may make this
determination upon “receipt of a written request for such a determination,” which
can be filed by the governor, the state superintendent, or the members of that
district’s board of education (a majority is required).

A financial planning and supervision commission is appointed to oversee
the development of a fiscal recovery plan for the district but there is little
connection between these plans and an aim to improve student achievement.
Currently eight districts are in fiscal emergency and another five are in fiscal
watch status.

Districts in fiscal emergency:  Springfield Local (Summit County); Federal Hocking Local
(Athens County); McDonald Local (Trumbull County); Bellaire Local (Belmont
County); Beaver Local (Columbiana County); Little Miami Local (Warren County);
Ledgemont Local (Geauga County); Liberty Local (Trumbull County)

Districts in fiscal
: Coventry Local (Summit
County); Niles City School District (Trumbull County); Cloverleaf Local (Medina
County); Brookfield Local (Trumbull County); Mansfield City (Richland County)

Further, even in instances of fiscal emergency, a statewide “financial
planning and supervisory commission” overseeing the district must still abide by collective
bargaining provisions. Collective bargaining laws and local contracts both
supersede this takeover provision. For instance, even when making reductions in
force to “bring the school district’s budget into balance” the commission must
give preference to teachers on continuing contracts

Examples: State takeover has been tried in many chronically
failing districts (for both fiscal and academic reasons, and sometimes both),
with varying degrees of success. A complete snapshot of this school improvement
strategy – and research verifying its effectiveness in various school districts
– is beyond the scope of this article, but below are a few notable examples at
a glance:

  • Oakland
    Unified School District, California
    . Post state takeover, the district
    balanced its budget and achieved improvements in test scores, according
    to the Council on Great City Schools.
  • School
    District of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
    The district was taken over by the
    state for both academic and fiscal reasons and according to this RAND report, student
    achievement improved post-takeover. Unique about this takeover example is that
    the 45 failing schools were turned over to for-profit and non-profit entities
    to manage the intervention (unlike in Ohio, where a loose and largely powerless
    “commission” makes broad recommendations to Youngstown).
  • Several
    districts in New Jersey (Camden, Newark, Jersey City, Trenton).
    NJ was the
    first state to do a district takeover; Jersey City became
    the first
    in 1989 (Paterson in 1991, and Newark in 1995). Takeovers among
    these districts have arguably
    been unsuccessful. Camden was released from state control last year,
    after eight unsuccessful years. A study of takeovers in the Garden State is
    available here

Mayoral control

Handing control of schools over to a city’s mayor is one strategy to
turn around failing schools. Mayoral control has been tried in many cities:
Boston, Chicago, Washington, DC, New York City, and Cleveland.

Mayoral control has been in place in Cleveland for almost 13
. In 1997, the state legislature voted to give then-Mayor Michael
White control of the district (signed by then-Gov. Voinovich). The district had
previously been under the control of federal courts, and the state
superintendent. Mayoral control essentially gave independence back to the
district after years of dysfunction and leadership turnover. (A full timeline,
and an assessment of the effectiveness of mayoral control in Cleveland, can be
found in this recent Plain Dealer article.)
More precisely, the mayor appoints the school board and the district’s CEO, and
has the right to fire the CEO (after 30 months, and with the approval of the
board s/he appointed). Mayoral control has many faces and can be constructed in
a variety of ways.
A mayor could have authority to:

  • Appoint members of the school board, but from a pre-nominated panel (Boston; Cleveland;
    Providence, Rhode Island).
  • Appoint some
    members of the school board (Detroit mayor appointed six of seven members;
    Hartford, Connecticut mayor appoints five of nine members [the other four are
    elected]); share this authority to appoint board members with the governor
    (Philadelphia, Baltimore); or appoint all
    board members (Trenton, New Jersey; Yonkers, New York).
  • Create charter schools (Indianapolis, Indiana;
    anywhere in the State of Rhode Island).
  • Appoint a district’s CEO/chief/chancellor (New
    York City, Chicago)

Like anything in K-12 education, it’s hard to draw generalizations
about the effectiveness of this governance option as its variants are many and
success – like in any educational endeavor – depends heavily on the unique
leadership capacity in a district at a given moment. This quote from former US Secretary
of Education and Houston superintendent, Rod Paige, sums it up nicely:

There is no one best answer to the question is 'Mayoral
Control' the answer for urban schools? History shows that in some urban
environments, mayoral control has provided a sense of stability and improved
school operations. But history also shows that mayoral control in some urban
environments has failed to make a difference.

It doesn’t really matter whether the school board is
appointed by the mayor or elected by the voters. What matters is whether the
people who actually end up on the school board are high quality individuals who
can reach consensus and commit to a shared vision of high achievement for all
children; whether they can achieve a sense of collegiality and togetherness in
pursuit of that shared vision; whether they can operate based on a system of
governance driven by policy development and appropriate oversight; whether they
can sustain a commitment to keep their distance from district management
decisions and the day to day operation of schools.

If other Ohio districts wanted to pursue this
option, it would require changes to state law as currently it only applies to

For more on
mayoral control:


‘Mayoral Control’ The Answer for Urban Schools?” National Journal Online, July 2009

the case for mayoral control of urban schools,” American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, August

Profiles of
cities with mayoral control

Mayoral Influence,
New Regimes, and Public School Governance,” CPRE Research Report Series, May
More mayors move to take over schools,” USA Today, March 2007.
schools into their own hands,” Wall
Street Journal
,  August 2010.
control brings big school changes in D.C.” Democrat
and Chronicle
, February 2010.

Linda Thompson has taken 'unprecedented' control of Harrisburg School
District,” The Patriot-News, March 2010
Mayoral Control
Makes the Grade: Unions want to take back the schools,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar 2009

Changes to the way school board is

Required by state law Ohio’s school boards are elected and must have a
minimum of five members. Alternate structures could be modeled off of examples
in other states (frequently in conjunction with mayoral control). For instance,
a district could have an appointed board (say, five members), with two members
appointed by the mayor and three by the governor such as in Baltimore.

Alternatively, state lawmakers could empower a given mayor
(specifically in a district in need of improvement, not mayors across the state
broadly) to appoint the school board (see mayoral control above) or appoint a
temporary/interim commission rather
than a board. A commission would signal a temporary arrangement focused on
restructuring schools, like what was put in place in Philadelphia as part of
its state overhaul more than a decade ago.

of board structures tried in various district, including versions of mayoral
control, include:

  • Boston.
    Mayor appoints 7 members of “committee” from pre-recommended list (a 13-member
    citizens’ nominating panel makes the recommendations).
  • Harrisburg,
    . The mayor appoints five members of “the board of control.”
  • New York
    . Mayor appoints chancellor of schools, and 8 (of 13) members of “the
    Panel for Educational Policy”; borough presidents appoint the other five.

This approach would require changes to state law and could likely only
be applied to a small number of districts. The Ohio Constitution stipulates
that districts must be governed by a board, but state law can then prescribe
the size and set-up of that board. The key caveat here is that city districts
(the ones likely to need reform the most) retain voter referendum right to make
changes to that size and set-up, too. (Note, voters in Cleveland never opted to
change that arrangement, but a large degree of dysfunction and unrest prior to
changes to that district’s governance probably had something to do with its

County-wide school district (change
to both funding/governance)

A dramatic change to governance and school funding for Ohio districts
could come in the form of county-wide governance. Many districts across the US
have merged school districts, for various reasons ranging from concerns over
scale and sustainability (merging small districts), cost-savings (sharing
services and consolidating positions), equity (reconciling disparities in
school funding), and desegregation. And in some states, county-wide school
districts are the norm.

Below are some examples of this governance option.

Chattanooga Public Schools and Hamilton County Schools (see here); Memphis-Shelby County Schools (see here,
and here)
; other mergers
in TN (which have been common).

County/Raleigh, Virginia
. See here.

and Jefferson County, Kentucky (merger beyond schools).
See here.

For more on county-wide school governance:

Montgomery County
Public Schools (not a merger, but an example of successful county-wide school

County Public Schools’ strategic plan

Treatment in Montgomery County Public Schools,” (study by Harvard Graduate
School of Education & Harvard Business School), February 2006

states/communities considering or doing county-wide school mergers
“Educational Efficiency in
Pennsylvania,” February 2011
to House Resolution 54: Feasibility Study for County Wide School Districts in
Kent and Sussex Counties (Delaware),” 2002
District Consolidation in Other States.

Ohio law sets up a
process whereby districts, or parts of districts, can merge. 

Statewide Recovery School Districts

Another option to turnaround Ohio’s most troubled schools – and one
with the potential for broader impact than many other governance reforms– would
be a statewide “recovery” district to oversee the worst-performing schools
statewide (or in the Big 8 or Urban 21 districts). Several districts/states have
tried this governance structure to oversee school turnarounds, the most notable
of which is the New Orleans Recovery School District administered by the Louisiana
Department of Education. Created by legislation passed in 2003, the New Orleans
RSD was designed to oversee underperforming schools, which become eligible for
transfer to the RSD if they fail to earn the state’s minimum School Performance
Score (SPS) for four consecutive years. (The current minimum SPS of 60
represents a school wherein more than 60 percent of the students are performing
below grade level.) Schools governed by the RSD stay within that district for a
minimum of five years.  

Schools within the RSD give principals autonomy to staff their schools
with teachers of their choosing, and make retention decisions based on
performance (not seniority), etc. This freedom over personnel is critical to achieving
major school improvement, and achievement results confirm this fact. The New
Orleans RSD was the most improved district for the 2009-2010 school year.
Overall, the RSD’s New Orleans schools posted a District Performance Score
(DPS) of 60.6 in 2010, an 11.4 percent increase from the 2009 DPS of 54.4
(growth that was twice that of the state).

Tennessee’s Department of Education is undergoing a similar strategy as
we write (implementing it in the 2011-12 school year). Chris Barbic (founder
and CEO of YES Prep Public Schools in Houston) is the superintendent of Tennessee’s
“Achievement School District.” The ASD will oversee five schools (four of which
are in Memphis), with expansion likely in the following years. These schools
were identified according to a definition that included the U.S. Department of
Education’s Persistently Lowest Achieving status, the state accountability status,
and a statewide lowest five percent designation.

The autonomy granted to schools within “recovery school districts”
sounds similar in theory to Ohio’s
innovation schools/zones, in that principals have more freedom from regulatory
barriers and more freedom when it comes to personnel decisions. However, a
statewide recovery school district would drive school improvement regardless of
whether individual districts opted to pursue them (as in the innovation zones)
and despite whether teachers unions wanted to participate. It would also govern
chronically failing schools with a coherent statewide strategy (as opposed to
having disparate reform strategies underway in multiple places across the

This approach would require changes to state law.