Jordan M. Wolfe?and Mary Sweetwood
The News Outlet

Have a problem with state government? Contact your representative or senator. Just don’t expect an answer.

That’s what Ron Peare, a resident of Elida in Northwest Ohio, learned after trying to reach state legislators about his concerns over school funding and school choice. He sent letters June 9 and Aug. 13 to the governor and the education committee members in the House and Senate. Only the governor responded.

“Silence from our legislature speaks volumes,” Peare wrote in a letter to the editor of the Lima News.

An even more concerted effort by the News Outlet, a consortium of state university journalism programs and media in Northeast Ohio, had only a slightly better experience in recent weeks.

Identifying themselves as a student journalism team working in conjunction with the Akron Beacon Journal, they attempted to contact 79 legislative candidates — incumbents and challengers — in Northeast Ohio and ask a question about charter schools that is now before the Ohio Supreme Court.

The student goal is to develop the Columbus Exchange: Politics in Question, a periodic current-issues survey of all 132 members of the House and Senate for use by all Ohio news organizations.

Two-thirds don’t answer

The results were disappointing.

Of 77 candidates with available contact information, 51 did not respond, even after multiple attempts to reach them. An Akron-area legislator refused to participate now and in the future.

The question posed this month involves a dispute of ownership between Akron-based White Hat Management, a for-profit charter school management company, and school boards that attempted to oust White Hat as the contracted manager.

In September, a lawyer for White Hat argued before the high court that assets become the property of the private company. The lawyer for the school boards disagreed, saying tax dollars and what they buy should remain public.

The question posed by the News Outlet to legislators: What are your thoughts on whether charter school assets can become the property of for-profit private businesses or should they remain in public hands, as do traditional public school assets?

In fairness, traditional public schools hire and pay for-profit companies for various services, such as busing. And no one is disputing whether the vehicles purchased by a private busing company belong to the company or the taxpayer-funded school.

However, traditional public schools do not give more than 95 percent of state funding to a single “turnkey” management company, as do charter schools that contract with White Hat.

No White Hat support

None of the few who responded sided with for-profit management companies, or defended contract and state laws that allow such companies to turn tax dollars into private assets.

Forty-five percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans responded. Of five independents, two responded and two had no contact information. Those in office were more likely to respond; 36 percent of incumbents and 30 percent of challengers.

As a group, nine Republicans and two Democrats, who did not respond, received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions in the past 24 months from David Brennan or William Lager, two politically active businessmen who own and operate Ohio’s largest for-profit charter companies — White Hat and Altair Learning, which runs the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.

Republicans recipients included House candidates Anthony DeVitis, Marlene Anielski, Mike Dovilla, Sarah LaTourette, Tim Ginter and Speaker William Batchelder, who alone received more than $32,000. Senate Republican candidates included Frank LaRose, Larry Obhof and Tom Patton.

Scott Oelslager — a Republican senator and the only donation recipient to respond — said: “The assets should remain in public schools.”

(An earlier version of this story attributed about $8,000 in contributions to Democrats. That information was incorrect. About $5,000 went to Republican Anthony DeVitis, not Democrat Anthony Fossaceca.)

It’s unclear if any other nonrespondents have received money from Brennan or Lager, who have also given $184,110 in the past 24 months to Republican House and Senate campaign committees.

Not now? Not ever?

Of the 51 who did not offer an answer, two said it was their intent not to respond.

“Sen. [Shirley A.] Smith will not be answering the question this month,” said Alan Ohman, legislative aide for Smith, a Democrat representing the eastern half of Cleveland and some of its suburbs. He would not elaborate on why, or if she would participate in the future.

Rep. Marilyn Slaby, a Republican representing most of Akron, not only declined to answer this question, but any future ones as well.

“At this time, Rep. Slaby has to decline, however, as she does not feel that she would be able to commit the time required to the program,” said Eric Seeds, Slaby’s legislative aide, in an email.

Slaby is a member of the House Education Committee.

Rep. Kristina Daley Roeg­ner, a Republican from Hudson representing northeast Summit County, also is a member of the House Education Committee and did not respond.

Contributors to this report from Youngstown State University: Keith Baker, Matt Hawout, Dustin Livesay, Billy Ludt, Laura McDonough, Jessica Mowchan, Nicolette Pizzuto, Alexis Rufener, Billy Sutak, John Veauthier, Brittany Wenner. From the University of Akron: Sartaj Aujla and Shelby Heitzenrater.

TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, the University of Akron and other state universities, and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM, the Youngstown Vindicator, the Akron Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio.