Boards oppose Widener add-on

Springfield’s senator says JVS boards should consist of business leaders.Clark board members say plan loses accountability, isn’t needed.

A local senator’s 11th-hour provision in the state budget bill to replace all JVS board members was added to spite a local career center after disagreements about a Springfield STEM school the lawmaker strongly supports, according to one opponent.

But Sen. Chris Widener, in a brief e-mail response to Springfield News-Sun questions, said Monday that the sole reason for replacing elected JVS board members with appointed, private members is to avoid a conflict of interest as the state passes on funding to districts.

“What I’ve been hearing is (the Global Impact STEM Academy) that … Widener has been backing had a disagreement with the Springfield-Clark Career Technology Center, so that prompted him to try to dispose of the career-tech board members across the state,” Bill Ferguson Jr., Great Oaks Institute of Technology and Career Development board member and Hamilton County Educational Service Center board president.

Widener didn’t respond directly to Ferguson’s allegations or to others statements made by opponents of the measure.

He said the state is setting aside $127 million in funding for career tech to all public districts and 49 JVS schools, charter schools and private schools.

“The funding for all these public and non-public schools in the territory of the JVS is contingent on approval by the local JVS board,” Widener wrote. “To avoid a conflict of interest, the local boards of education will be asked to appoint an employer who hires students and adults to represent their district on the JVS Board instead of appointing a board member of a home school district.”

Opponents of the measure, including the Ohio School Boards Association and two Clark County school district board members, believe Widener’s proposal would eliminate the public’s ability to hold officials spending their tax dollars accountable and severely disrupt a governance model that other states look to for advice.

It’s “a solution looking for a problem,” the OSBA wrote.

“Ohio has a career tech system that’s one of the best in the country, and sometimes other states come to look at how we’re doing stuff as a model. To see this item put into the budget bill … it seems like it would be very disruptive to the success that career centers have had with their programs,” said Donna Myers, CTC board president and a member of the Northwestern Local School board.

The OSBA wrote in a letter to House Speaker William Batchelder and Senate President Keith Faber last week that it’s concerned about the “major change to school district governance that appeared in the bill very late in the budget process. We adamantly oppose this move to privatize the oversight of these tax districts, which are spending public taxpayer dollars.”

Under current law, elected local school district board members are appointed by their respective boards to govern the local joint vocational school districts, like the Springfield-Clark Career Technology Center.

If the provision makes its way into law, they would be replaced by local business leaders, appointed by the local school districts.

“The appointing board shall appoint members who represent employers in the region served by the joint vocational district who are qualified to consider a region’s workforce needs with an understanding of the skills, training and education needed for current and future employment needs in the region,” the amendment reads.

“A joint vocational school district is a taxing district, as are our local districts, … and right now, in the law, we’re elected officials, and we’re held accountable for the expenditures of public tax dollars,” Myers said.

The bill and amendments were passed by the Senate earlier this month, but the Ohio House rejected the changes 95-0 last week, triggering a conference committee. If representatives don’t demand Widener’s amendment be removed from the bill, it would go to the governor, Ferguson said.

The OSBA also said the JVS districts are already served by business advisory councils that are industry- or trade-specific, and, according to data it collects on board member occupations, more than half of their board members statewide already have backgrounds or experience in business.

“While the intent of the provision may be to mandate the involvement of the business community, JVSDs are currently served by strong business advisory councils,” it said.

Affected locally would be the CTC, a joint vocational school district in Springfield that serves high school- and adult-age students and has governance by the districts of Springfield, Northwestern, Northeastern, Tecumseh, Southeastern, Greenon, Clark-Shawnee and the county educational service center.

“To me, we do just fine with locally-elected people and … we should have control of how that money is spent,” said Doug Murphy, president of the Northeastern Local Schools board.

“In my opinion there’s not a problem with the current system of the JVS board member selection, so I don’t know why they’re doing this. I feel it’s just another attempt by the state to remove the accountability of publicly-elected board members, such as myself,” Murphy said.

He didn’t believe Widener’s proposal would make it out of the conference committee.

“I think there will be a pretty big outcry, and there’s going to be a lot of lobbying against that,” Murphy said.

“An item like this doesn’t have a place in a budget bill. If there is some change, there needs to be some committee work and input from all the stakeholders involved with career tech educations,” Myers said.

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