When Missy Deming went to vote Tuesday, she thought something was missing from the ballot: Where was the race for the board of governors of the Medina County Schools’ Educational Service Center?
She was told it wasn’t a mistake. While the Educational Service Center serves all school districts in the county, voters in only about a third of the county’s 117 precincts — those in the Highland, Buckeye and Cloverleaf school districts — get to decide who serves on the board.
Voters living in the Medina, Brunswick and Wadsworth school districts aren’t eligible.
Deming doesn’t think that’s right.
“It’s a county board and it represents all districts, so I think people in all districts should get a say,” Deming said. “I think that needs to be brought to light and it needs to be changed.”
Deming isn’t the only voter who wondered why the ESC board wasn’t on their ballots.
“I know a number of people had questions about it,” county Board of Elections Director Carol Lawler said.
Lawler said elections workers were caught off-guard by the questions on a busy elections day and phoned the ESC to try to get an explanation.
“We did check our ballots to make sure we had the proper items on the ballot,” Lawler said.
“We knew (Medina school district residents) weren’t supposed to vote on the ESC, but we couldn’t tell them why.”
The explanation of why only some county voters get to vote for the ESC’s board has its roots in the nearly century-old Ohio law that created the county boards of education, which are the predecessors of the county educational service centers.
The Ohio General Assembly created the county school boards in 1914 to administer the state’s thousands of rural school districts, said Craig Burford, executive director of the Ohio ESC Association.
“We were really established to make sure there was a coordinated level of curriculum and a standard level of education across all the districts back when we still had many one-room schoolhouses in the state.”
At the time the law was passed, the state had more than 2,500 school districts. It now has 609, according to the Ohio Department of Education.
The consolidation of the rural schools into “local school” districts — each with its own school board — began in the 1930s and continued until the 1960s.
In Medina County, that led to the creation of the Buckeye, Cloverleaf and Highland districts.
At the end of the process, the county school board had no more schools to administer. But instead of shutting down the county boards, the Legislature rebranded them educational service centers with the responsibility of providing services, such as bus driver training, school nurses, special needs teachers and therapists, which were needed by all local school districts.
“We went from thousands of districts to the local ones we have today,” Burford said. “The local districts were the only ones we were required to provide services to.”
In 1989, the state law was changed to allow ESCs also to support city school districts, Burford said.
Many districts, including Medina, Brunswick and Wadsworth, jumped at the chance to share services and the cost-savings it promised.
In 2011, legislators in Columbus went further and required every district with 16,000 or fewer students to be served by an ESC.
Burford said that includes all but the state’s seven largest districts, including Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo and Akron.
The new requirement prompted calls for changes in the way ESC governing boards are elected.
Burford said his association has recommended residents in city school districts get to vote on who sits on their county or regional ESC board.
“Before then, you could make an argument that all the districts have the ability to come and go from the ESC as they saw fit,” he said. “But now, everyone is required to be aligned with an ESC.”
Proposals for reform
Buford said changes to the ESC’s organization and governing board were proposed by Gov. John Kasich as part of the state’s two-year budget approved in June.
But instead of increasing the number of eligible voters, Buford said the proposals would have changed “the definition of ESCs, to expand our services to all government organizations … not just schools.”
Burford said his association opposed the proposal, arguing the primary mission of the ESCs should continue to be education services.
The proposed reforms also would have eliminated elected ESC governing boards, replacing them with members appointed by the school districts the ESCs serve.
Burford’s association opposed that idea as well.
“We’re really for publicly elected boards and the accountability that goes along with it,” he said. “I think the Legislature agreed, and elected not to go along with the reforms the (Kasich) administration proposed.”
William Koran, superintendent of the Medina County Schools’ ESC, agreed that residents in the city school districts should be represented on the governing board.
Koran pointed out that two-thirds of his $6.3 million budget comes from the county’s three city school districts — Brunswick, Medina and Wadsworth.
“I think anyone funding two-thirds of our dollars and getting two-thirds of our services should have a say in what’s happening,” he said.
But Koran said he is concerned that a countywide vote would leave the local school districts under-represented. He feared candidates from smaller districts would lose to candidates from more populated areas.
“It’s likely that our board would be comprised of only city residents,” Koran said. “Would it be fair? Yes, but I don’t think we’d truly be getting the representation we’re trying to achieve.”
Koran argued that a “council government system,” where each school district got to appoint a member to the board would be best for Medina County.
The ESC serves the three city districts, three local school districts and the Medina County Career Center. (The county’s seventh district, Black River, is headquartered in Sullivan, in Ashland County, and is served by the Tri-County Educational Service Center.)
“A seven-member board is perfect here,” he said.
Koran noted the five-member governing board the ESC now has does not include anyone from the Buckeye district.
“Three of my board members are from Cloverleaf and two are from Highland,” he said.
Koran speculated that a big reason reforms haven’t been made is the difficulty of coming up with solutions that work for both urban and rural ESC districts.
“If there was an easy solution, I think it would have been done a long time ago,” he said.
Koran also said there’s been a lack of public pressure for reform.
“Nothing has been done, because there haven’t really been any complaints about the current system,” he said.
There are signs that situation has changed — at least in Medina County.
Lawler, the county’s elections director, said publicity about the state auditor’s investigation into Medina Schools Superintendent Randy Stepp’s spending of district money from a “carryover” fund held by the county ESC, put a spotlight on the on the ESC board.
A special state audit released last month found Stepp owes the district $4,121 for money illegally spent.
Stepp has been suspended without pay and the Medina school board has initiated the process to fire him.
The audit also found Stepp spent nearly $1 million from ESC funds without proper authorization of the school district.
Prior to the release of the audit, ESC Treasurer Michelle McNeely, who signed off on Stepp’s spending, resigned from her position.
News coverage of the investigation, Lawler said, highlighted the role the ESC plays in serving all school districts in the county.
“Because of the attention on the Medina superintendent, I think a number of people were looking at the ESC board and hoping to vote,” Lawler said.
Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or firstname.lastname@example.org.