Ohio Supreme Court Upholds School District Takeover Law

On May 13, 2020, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld House Bill (HB) 70, which was passed in 2015 by the 131st General Assembly. HB 70 is a school takeover bill that gave sweeping powers to an appointed CEO in districts that struggled to meet overall state report card requirements. 

The Youngstown City School District Board of Education argued that HB 70 was unconstitutional. HB 70 originally authorized schools to create community learning centers where academic performance was low. It was considered by the House on three separate days, after which it was ultimately passed by the House and went to the Senate for consideration. 

The Senate considered the bill on three separate days also but made two amendments, one of which modified the structure of academic-distress commissions. Among other items, the amendment included a requirement that for any district that has received an overall grade of “F” on its state report card for three consecutive years, a commission must appoint a CEO who has “complete operational, managerial, and instructional control” over the school district. The Senate passed the amended bill and the House quickly concurred in the Senate amendments. The Governor signed the bill into law.

The Board of Education (along with its employee unions) sought a declaratory judgment and permanent injunction by challenging the constitutionality of the bill and the legislative process in enacting it. The Board of Education argued that the law violated an Ohio Constitutional provision that requires that every bill “be considered by each house on three different days,” and another provision that states that a city school district has the power “by referendum vote to determine for itself the number of members and the organization of the district board of education.”

The trial court ruled against the Board of Education, as did the Tenth District Court of Appeals. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed to hear the Board of Education’s appeal.

The Supreme Court found that the three-consideration provision in the Ohio Constitution was not violated. The Board of Education argued that the bill was substantially changed in the Senate from its original purpose of creating community learning centers. The Board of Education claimed that the amended bill must also satisfy the three-consideration provision of the Constitution. The Supreme Court disagreed. It found that a bill need not contain the exact same language in each of its three readings to be valid. “[A]mendments which do not vitally alter the substance of a bill do not trigger a requirement for three considerations anew of such amended bill.” Only where the subject or proposition of a bill is wholly changed must an amended bill satisfy the three-consideration provision. 

In this case, the House and Senate each considered HB 70 on three different days. The Supreme Court found that the amended bill had a common purpose to the original bill of seeking to improve underperforming schools. Therefore, the amended bill that included the additional academic-distress commission provisions did not also need to satisfy the three-consideration provision of the Constitution.

As for the Board of Education’s other argument, the Supreme Court found that the Ohio Constitution governs the size and organization of school boards, not the power and authority conferred to them. Although HB 70 removed most of the Board of Education’s power, the Supreme Court found that the Constitution does not prevent that. Accordingly, the Supreme Court upheld HB 70 and affirmed the judgments of the lower courts that ruled against the Board of Education.

HB 70 does not apply to the vast majority of Ohio school districts. However, it has been declared constitutional and will remain valid Ohio law until such time as the legislature amends it. Recent legislation has been proposed seeking to end school takeovers such as this (SB 89) or dissolve the academic-distress commission overseeing Lorain City Schools (HB 9). Neither of those legislative attempts have become law. Members of the General Assembly have indicated that they will continue to address the status of academic-distress commissions and school takeover. We will monitor those efforts and keep you updated.