In an opinion issued on Wednesday, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled against Youngstown City School District Board of Education (board) in its suit against the State of Ohio, which claimed that the passage of Ohio House Bill (HB) 70 violated the Ohio Constitution. HB 70 made sweeping changes to Ohio’s laws on academic distress commissions. The board argued that the bill violated both Article II, Section 15(C) and Article VI, Section 3 of the Ohio Constitution.
Article II, Section 15(C) contains the “three-reading rule,” which requires every bill to be considered by each house three times on three different days, unless the House or Senate suspends the rule by a two-thirds vote of its members. The three-reading rule is newly triggered when a bill that has already been considered by one or both chambers is “vitally altered.” Youngstown argued that the substance and size of two amendments to the bill by the Senate Education Committee, which increased HB 70 from 10 to 77 pages, and introduced the state’s academic distress response to the bill, should have triggered the three-reading rule. Youngstown contended that the fact that the rule was not triggered violated the constitution.
Article VI, Section 3 states that each school district within a city will have the power to determine the number of its members and the organization of its school board by public vote. Youngstown argued that HB 70’s grant of authority to academic distress commissions would unconstitutionally strip away all of the decision-making authority from local districts.
The court held that HB 70 did not violate the three-reading rule because the bill was not vitally altered over the course of the Senate’s three readings. The court stated that a bill is vitally altered when it “depart[s] entirely from a consistent theme,” meaning that the altered bill does not maintain a common purpose before and after its amendment. The court held that HB 70’s common purpose was to improve education in underperforming school districts, and that this common purpose was maintained before and after amendments made by the Senate. The court noted that the amendments to HB 70 did not alter the goal of seeking to improve underperforming schools, although the amendments altered the tools through which that goal may be achieved.
The court further held that HB 70 did not violate Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution by removing decision-making authority from a city school board when an academic distress commission is established for an underperforming school district. The court cited previous precedent in which Article VI, Sections 1, 2, and 3 of the Ohio Constitution were interpreted to grant the General Assembly “broad powers to provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools … and for the organization, administration, and control thereof.” The court noted that boards of education have only those powers that are specifically granted to them by statute, and that Article VI, Section 3 was not meant to grant school boards or the local voters more power than the General Assembly to organize public education systems within a given district.
The court concluded that Section 3 governs questions of size and organization, rather than the power and authority, of city school boards. The court agreed with Youngstown that Section 3 grants a positive right to local voters in a district to set the number of members and organization of their school boards but disagreed that the section also limits the authority of the General Assembly over those same school districts. In short, while the court acknowledges that HB 70 would allow an academic distress commission to remove “nearly all power and authority from a city school board” and transfer that authority to an appointed chief executive officer for the district, this result is within the scope of the General Assembly’s constitutional power to provide an efficient educational system, granted by Article VI, Sections 1, 2, and 3 of the Ohio Constitution.
Justices Donnelly and Stewart offered dissents to the majority opinion. Justice Donnelly argued that the amended version of HB 70 coming out of the Ohio Senate was introduced “at the 11th hour,” and was unconstitutional in failing to meet the requirements of the three-reading rule. The dissent further stated that the underlying purpose of the rule, to prevent hasty action and promote greater publicity and legislative discussion, was ignored in the passing of HB 70, and that ignoring the policy behind the rule sets a dangerous precedent for Ohio courts and legislatures. Donnelly contended that, because the new concept of school governance introduced in the revised HB 70 did not follow the theme of the original bill, it should have been considered “vitally altered,” and have newly triggered the three-reading provision.
Justice Stewart also disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of the three-reading rule. His dissent mirrored the policy precedent cited in Justice Donnelly’s dissent, agreeing that the purpose of the rule was to promote publicity and thoughtful legislative discussion. The dissent added that the rule was meant to constrain the passage of bad legislation that may result from temporary passion. The dissent also pointed to the stark difference in title between the original and revised versions of HB 70 as strong evidence of a departure from the theme of the bill as originally introduced to the House. The original title delineated its purpose as authorizing school districts “to initiate a community learning center process to assist and guide school restructuring.” Stewart argued that the title revisions to HB 70 reflect the bill’s focus-shift to drastically amending law regarding academic distress commissions, which expands the purpose of the bill “well beyond” its original intent – the creation of community learning centers.
If you have any questions about the decision, please contact OSBA’s division of legal services at (855) 672-2529 or (855) OSBA-LAW.
*OSBA wishes to thank Capital University Law School student and OSBA intern Gamaliel Narvaez for his contributions to this article.