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Lawsuit Filed Over Kasich School Board Appointment

Many things the state board of education votes on, such as the budget, need to go through the legislature and the governor. But the state board of education sets statewide policy on education and hires the state school superintendent. So governors have long wanted more of their own people on the board. 11 of the state school board’s members are elected, and eight are appointed. Since he took office in January, Gov. John Kasich has appointed four people to replace board members whose terms were expiring and one person to a vacant seat. His sixth appointee is Angela Thi Bennett, a Cleveland attorney who’s in favor of school choice, which Kasich also supports. WCPN’s Eric Wellman asked her for her thoughts on the process by which teachers are retained and fired.
“Well I do believe it’s important to have – they use the term ‘highly qualified’ – not just highly qualified but committed teachers. If our students are to be the first priority, then you need a system where you’re choosing and keeping the most committed teachers. (Do you think, though, that the union rule of ‘last hired/first fired’ should be rethought?) Absolutely.”

But the unions that represent Ohio’s teachers are saying that there is no seat for Bennett on the board – because the one she was appointed to is already occupied. They’re backing former Cleveland special education teacher Martha Harris, a member of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, who was appointed by former Gov. Ted Strickland two years ago.

“Criminals get due process. I believe I should get due process too. I have been notified by no one that this situation has taken place.”

Harris says she applied to be a board member and was appointed to a four year term in January 2009. She says she sent in her paperwork and has been coming to board meetings ever since. The Ohio Senate confirms nominees to the state board of education, and Gov. Kasich’s spokesman Rob Nichols says last month the administration was told that the Senate clerk never got Harris’ appointment.
“We confirmed with the Senate if indeed that were the case that her paperwork was not filed, to which they responded that, yeah, there was no paperwork filed on her behalf.”

So even though Harris had been coming to meetings for two years, Nichols says Republican attorney general Mike DeWine advised Kasich that since the Senate hadn’t confirmed her, the seat was vacant as of the end of last year. So Gov. Kasich appointed Bennett, who like Harris is a Democrat. Both Bennett and Harris showed up for the start of the board’s two day meeting, so state school board president Robin Hovis called for help as to who should get the seat.
“We’ve had guidance from the Attorney General. Based on that guidance, we are considering the seat to be vacant at this point, and so the new appointee from Gov. Kasich then is seated at the table.”

At the meeting, Bennett wasn’t speaking with reporters, but Harris says talked to her, and there was no animosity between them personally. But Harris is clearly emotional about the situation.
“It is upsetting me because I dedicated my whole life to education for the betterment of Ohio’s children, and this was just something that took me to another level with helping the children, because I really do believe that education is the key. So it is hurtful.”

With the help of the two teachers’ unions, Harris filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Cleveland against Gov. Kasich, the state board of education, and Angela Thi Bennett. Harris wants the court to issue an order blocking any change in her membership on the board till her term expires at the end of 2012.