Portage County Educational Services Center faces imminent closure

Kelsey Leyva, Jason Meek, Jennifer Roberts

The Portage County Educational Service Center, which once provided 11 school districts with services such as curriculum development, special education, tutoring and part-time employees, will soon go out of business.

Why it’s closing

A 2013 law allowed school districts to leave their local educational service center and contract with a different one. As of Dec. 31, 2014, every school district in Portage County decided to seek sponsorship from ESCs in neighboring counties. With no schools left to generate funds, the Portage County ESC will dissolve on June 30.

PCESC’s Superintendent Dewey Chapman and Executive Director Cheryl Emrich are now under investigation by the Ohio Department of Education for possible misconduct when they attempted to sponsor Hope 4 Change Academy, a charter school in Cincinnati.

Chapman said in an email interview that Hope 4 Change is now closed and no longer has any administrators. However, a secretary answered the phone number listed on Hope 4 Change’s website and said the school’s administrator was in a meeting. The school did not respond to subsequent calls requesting an interview.

Charter schools funded by the PCESC have reported low academic performance — among the lowest 20 percent in the state. In response, the ODE removed the PCESC’s authority to open new charter schools in October 2013.

According to a press release from the ODE, the PCESC attempted to “circumvent the law and mislead students and teachers by opening a new charter school under a defunct school’s state identification number.”

Chapman’s performance evaluations show he met or exceeded expectations in every category between 2012 and 2013. He received praise for his “business model” approach to education and his creation of schools to address industry needs.

Click here to view Chapman’s full performance review.

The 2014 evaluation notes Chapman needs some improvement accepting constructive criticism and “does not accept questions with an open mind.”

A public records request for Emrich’s performance reviews was denied because Emrich is a “rehired retired employee” and is not required to be reviewed.

John Charlton, associate director for media relations at the Ohio Department of Education, couldn’t comment on the open investigation.

“The Ohio Department of Education is ensuring that there’s no disruption of the education of those students (in Portage County school districts),” Charlton said.

The PCESC will still be considered the sponsor for those school districts until June 30.

Why school districts left and where they’re going

Chapman said he’s “not sure” why all the school districts decided to seek the services of another center.

David Toth, superintendent for Crestwood Local Schools, said his decision to leave the PCESC stemmed mostly from the district’s desire to explore its options.

“This is the first year where districts were allowed by state law to look at different ESCs,” Toth said. “In 2014, you could start looking at different affiliations. It’s the first time you were ever able to do that, so we just decided to start looking at that process.”

After reviewing several candidates, Crestwood chose to contract with the Cuyahoga County Educational Service Center.

“They have tremendous capacity, because it’s a large organization, to offer great programming for our students and our teachers,” Toth said. “It’s also financially beneficial. We should have more funds available through the Cuyahoga County ESC to train our teachers.”

Crestwood employed a truant officer, curriculum liaison consultant and a physical therapist through the PCESC. Toth said it was also necessary to contract with other organizations to get the curriculum services the district required. Cuyahoga County ESC will be able to provide all of those services.

LISTEN: David Toth explains why Crestwood Local Schools chose the Cuyahoga County ESC.

As for Superintendent Dennis Honkala of Ravenna City Schools, he said his decision was more financially driven.

“The ramifications of us being left by the other local schools and having to assume, perhaps, some of that debt or perhaps having to pay or having our expenses increase more, that was a real threat for us,” Honkala said. “So I didn’t want to be the last one standing, so to speak, and have to incur any of that debt.”

Ravenna also relied on the PCESC for part-time employees.

“Because we’re a bigger city school, we did not purchase curriculum services so much from the Portage County ESC, but we did run several of our employees through,” Honkala said. “We got our physical therapist, occupational therapist, those types of services from the ESC.”

Honkala said Ravenna is also switching to Cuyahoga County’s ESC.

“It’s not a matter of what other people can’t give but just a matter of what Cuyahoga County can give. They have 31 school districts in Cuyahoga County itself, and then they’re adding six that I’m aware of, possibly seven, additional,” Honkala said. “Just those economies of scale. They have a $100 and some million dollar budget, so you’re able to leverage better pricing, purchase additional services and there are more variety of services.”

LISTEN: Dennis Honkala explains why Ravenna City Schools chose to start a contract with Cuyahoga County ESC.


Future of Cuyahoga County ESC

Robert Mengerink, superintendent of the Cuyahoga County ESC, confirmed seven Portage County school districts decided to contract with his organization.

“What that’ll do for us is add about 30 to 40 percent more districts that we will serve as an center educational service,” Mengerink said. “And that’s really a good thing because it increases our capacity and as we grow in size as a service agency it really gives you more opportunities.”

Mengerink said he is beginning to work out plans for all the new districts joining Cuyahoga.

“There hasn’t been a lot of paperwork, but there’s been a lot of reporting and explaining what we do and creating what should be done for each district. Each district is unique and has unique needs,” Mengerink said. “We customize what we do for each district.”

The Cuyahoga County ESC will officially take on the additional schools starting July 1.

Contact Kelsey Leyva at [email protected]. Contact Jason Meek at [email protected]. Contact Jennifer Roberts at [email protected].