Gerrymandered board of education districts do not accord with Ohio law and should be revised: editorial

Ohio voters created the State Board of Education in 1953. As the law is currently constituted, 11 of the board’s 19 members are elected to staggered terms, while the governor appoints the remaining eight. But this year’s board of education elections major hurdles, thanks to decisions by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine amid political gridlock over the redistricting of Ohio Senate districts.

Gov. DeWine redrew the 11 districts Jan. 31 using a Jan. 24 map the Ohio Supreme Court one week later found to be unconstitutional. But DeWine didn’t change those districts, which today no longer reflects the boundaries of the state Senate districts being used for the 2022 elections.

That clearly violates Ohio law, which requires that each education district “shall consist of the territory of three contiguous senate districts” and prohibits dividing senate districts among different education districts.

Those statutory requirements are complicated, however, by the unsettled nature of state redistricting in Ohio. The state maps being used for the Aug. 2 partisan primary and Nov. 8 election were imposed by a panel of federal judges just for this election cycle, when five nonpartisan state education board positions will also be on the November ballot.

Beyond the issue of education districts that don’t align with state Senate districts as required by Ohio law, by the time the other six education board positions make it to the ballot, in 2024, state districts likely will have changed again. Will that mean that some board members’ districts overlap, in turn excluding some Ohioans from representation on the State Board of Education? Or, will the state in 2024 have to decree new boundaries for already-elected board members?

Into this thicket of problems come Democratic critics of DeWine’s board of education maps to argue that the governor didn’t actually have the authority to redraw the districts, since Ohio law, if strictly construed, envisions the governor stepping in only by Jan. 31 of the year following the legislature’s failure to legislate the new State Board of Education districts in the same year it reapportions General Assembly seats.

Since that reapportionment occurred this year, albeit not in final, constitutional form, Democrats argue DeWine jumped the gun, and his map is moot. One could argue, therefore, that the existing State Board of Education districts should be used for this election (although that would conflict with the state Senate districts imposed for 2022-24.) to reflect the state Senate lines being used for this election cycle.

DeWine, Spokesman Dan Tierney argues the governor followed the law by acting by Jan. 31, 2022 and has no authority to take further action.

Complicating the picture is that Secretary of State Frank LaRose has already directed directed Ohio’s 88 county board of elections to start accepting State Board of Education candidate filings, with an Aug. 10 deadline for this year’s five races in Districts 2, 3, 4, 9 and 10.

Three of those five districts are represented by Northeast Ohioans — Kirsten Hill of Amherst in District 2, John Hagan of Alliance in District 9 and appointee Tim Miller of Akron in District 10. Hagan’s district was significantly altered on DeWine’s new map, pushing it into the northeasternmost part of Ohio, cleveland.com’s Laura Hancock has reported. Hill is on the Aug. 2 primary ballot seeking the GOP nomination in the 13th Ohio Senate district, but says if she loses that primary, she will seek to get on the ballot for re-election to the state education board from District 2

The state education board’s most important responsibility is to appoint Ohio’s superintendent of public instruction – the board’s executive officer for carrying out its “educational policies, orders, directives, and administrative functions.” The superintendent’s job is vacant, which means State Board of Education members are facing an especially critical task in searching for a new one.

It’s absurd that the DeWine-drawn state board districts are based on state Senate districts that, legally speaking, don’t exist. That’s likely to stoke voter confusion and cut turnout in state education board races at a critical time for public education in Ohio.

Close as the Aug. 10 filing deadline is, if there’s a way to use the Senate districts slated for use in November’s election as the basis for the State Board of Education districts, that needs to be done. If it can’t be, the legislature needs to revisit the problem first thing next year.

About our editorials: Editorials express the view of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer — the senior leadership and editorial-writing staff. As is traditional, editorials are unsigned and intended to be seen as the voice of the news organization.

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