Fight to Save the Schools

The Impact of the Omnibus School Law

July 1965 to May 1968

by Richard Horvath, Bratenahl Historical Society)

Amended Substitute House Bill No. 950, commonly referred to as the “Omnibus School Law,” was passed by the Ohio legislature with lightning speed.  Governor James Rhodes signed the bill and its provisions became law on August 16, 1965, a mere six weeks after its initial introduction in the Ohio House of Representatives on July 1st.

The primary purpose of the Omnibus School Law was to establish a new methodology for distributing state aid to education.  Its goal was to transform the quality of public education in Ohio.  The bill received almost universal support in the state legislature.  The final vote in the Ohio House was 127 in favor and only 3 against.  The final vote in the Ohio Senate was unanimous in support of the bill.

For the Village of Bratenahl, the passage of the Omnibus School Law would have a transformative impact on the community and its residents.  Although intended to improve quality education in Ohio, the Omnibus School Law would eventually end a widely recognized, first-class quality elementary education program in the village, result in a dozen years of often contentious litigation between the local school board and the State of Ohio, and test the resolve and resources of village residents.  Certainly no one would have thought in 1965 that within a few years, the Bratenahl community would be at the forefront of efforts to integrate public education, would fund and implement new approaches for teaching high school students, and construct a building to house a new high school in the Village.  During the upcoming struggle, Bratenahl residents organized, elected citizen representatives separate from the village government, and created resident committees and later a community foundation in an effort to preserve the Bratenahl school system.  Before the struggle ended, Bratenahl sought relief from every level of the state and federal court system, including the Ohio and United States Supreme Courts, and appealed for support from the White House. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the struggle by Bratenahl to save its school system was described by one court as “herculean.”  It was.  And it all started with one provision in the massive Omnibus School Law.

Prior to 1965, Revised Code Section (R.C.) 3311.29 simply provided that a school district may not be created in the State of Ohio or receive any state funds for public education unless the school district maintained at least one public school in the district.  The Omnibus School Law made a significant amendment to this law.  Henceforth, R.C. 3311.29 provided that no school district may be created “and after July 1, 1968, no school district shall exist which does not maintain within such district public schools consisting of grades one through twelve, inclusive and any such existing school district not maintaining such schools after such date shall be dissolved.”

It was estimated at the time of the passage the Omnibus School Law that there were approximately fifty (50) “elementary school districts,” that is, school districts without high schools, including the Bratenahl school district.  As part of the effort to modify and improve the financing of Ohio public education in Ohio, the State sought to consolidate and reduce the overall number of districts throughout the state.    The method chosen by the state legislators was to summarily eliminate all of the elementary school districts in Ohio.  If a school district only contained one or more elementary schools and no high school, it needed to merge into a nearby school district that contained all twelve grade levels of public education by July 1, 1968, unless granted an exception by the Ohio State Board of Education.

Since the construction of the Bratenahl School in 1906, the School District only taught students through grade eight.  Housed in a red-brick building on Brighton Road in the village, the Bratenahl School was nestled among the homes of Bratenahl near its very center.  In fact, it is not an overstatement to say that the Bratenahl School was the heart of the village.  Children could walk to school, just as their parents and grandparents had walked to the Bratenahl School.  Alums of the Bratenahl School were the village elders and leaders.  They were proud of the education they had received at the Bratenahl School and wanted their children to receive the same education. As subsequently inventoried in official records, the Bratenahl School in 1968 was “staffed with a full-time superintendent serving as principal, eleven full-time teachers, including a language teacher, an art teacher and a music teacher working two days a week each, a home economics teacher approximately one and one-half days a week, a full-time secretary, a part-time Clerk of the Board, and a full-time custodian-janitor.”

In 1968, Bratenahl was home to 285 children attending grades kindergarten through twelfth grade.  Sixty-six of these children attended parochial or private schools.  The rest, 219 children, attended public school.  Since the village contained no high school in 1968, the School Board, as permitted by state law, paid the tuition of forty Bratenahl students to attend area public high schools.  In 1968, high school students from Bratenahl were attending classes at Euclid High School, Lakewood High School, one in East Cleveland, one in Shaker Heights, and two in Cleveland.  The younger children attending public school went to the Bratenahl School.  And since Bratenahl did not have a high school, the Omnibus School Law was a direct threat to the continued existence of the Bratenahl School.

It is not clear whether any state legislators were aware of or concerned about the Bratenahl school system at the time of the passage of the Omnibus School Law.

Bratenahl officials were aware of the impact that the new law would have on Bratenahl.  On June 13, 1967, a year before the deadline for merger of elementary school districts in Ohio, The Plain Dealer published a story that reported that “the Bratenahl school board has been quietly studying ways to prevent merger.”  As reported in the article, Bratenahl officials were focused on obtaining an exception to the new law:

“’There are provisions in the law for exceptions and I think we could qualify for these exceptions,’ said Samuel G. Wellman, board president. The law says: ‘The state board of education may authorize exceptions to school districts where topography, sparsity of population and other factors make compliance impracticable.’ . . . ‘The basis of our objection is that topography makes the merger not feasible,’ said Wellman. ‘We are completely cut off from the Cleveland School District by the Lakeland Freeway.”

On April 12, 1968, the Bratenahl School District formally requested an exception from the requirement that the Bratenahl School merge with the Cleveland school district on July 1, 1968.  Why did the School District wait until three months before the deadline to request an exception from the State Board?

In comments made at a community hearing on June 15, 1968, School Board President Samuel Wellman reported that the School District contacted the State School Board initially “as early as March 1966.”

“We were urged, however (and to us it made sense) not to apply for the exception until the latest possible time – so that if we were successful – it would not create a practical barrier to the Board in eliminating the other 50 or so districts, most of which really weren’t giving their children adequate education.”

The School Board delayed its filing in the belief that the State would be receptive to its petition but did not want to start a precedent enabling other districts to obtain a similar exception.

The School Board approached education leaders in Cuyahoga County to solicit support for the continued existence of the Bratenahl School.  In general, most of these officials were content to leave the final decision to State Superintendent Martin W. Essex and the members of the State School Board, and declined to take a public position on the merger of the two school districts.  One exception was Russell H.  Davis.

Russell Howard Davis was a respected Cleveland educator, activist and historian of Cleveland’s black community.  He became Cleveland’s first black principal when he was named to head Central Junior High School in 1940 at the age of 42.  In 1968, Davis was a member of the State School Board, one of twenty-four board members who would decide the merits of Bratenahl School District’s exception request.  At the time, he resided at Bratenahl Place in the Village of Bratenahl.

Davis became a strong advocate for the preservation of the Bratenahl School, having witnessed the quality of its education program.  He solicited votes of his colleagues on the State Board in support of the Bratenahl School Board’s position.

Other members of Cleveland’s black community supported the School Board’s request.  Village Council President James Davis reported that Leo Jackson, Cleveland City Council member for the Glenville neighborhood, “was in complete support of our position” and M. Morris Jackson, Ohio State Senator for the 21st District, “had no objection.”  But the lack of racial diversity in the Bratenahl School became the chief obstacle to Bratenahl’s efforts.

Later, Samuel Wellman believed that the State School Board feared reprisal from the Federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) acting under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 if they granted Bratenahl an exception.

“The State Board’s fear was of a lawsuit by H.E.W. . . . and/or loss of the all-important Federal money grants to Ohio education.  For H.E.W. has responsibility to observe the conditions relating to elimination of racial discrimination in doling out Federal money, and also has enforced responsibilities under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other Federal laws aimed at preventing or eliminating racial imbalance in schools.”

The School Board’s request for an exception from merging with the Cleveland School District was scheduled for hearing before the State School Board on May 13, 1968.  The delegation from Bratenahl to the hearing in Columbus was led by School Board President Wellman and the Cleveland attorney for the Bratenahl School District Walter Kelley.  While Bratenahl’s request was on the meeting agenda, another item was up for consideration the same day that presaged the challenge facing the Bratenahl School.

As described in The Cleveland Press the next day, the State School Board “in a tough new policy statement has called upon school officials to break the barriers of de facto racial segregation."

“The board adopted the policy statement in setting up an Office of Equal Opportunity financed by Federal funds to help schools improve the educational opportunities of ethnic minorities.  The six-point policy, adopted without a dissenting vote, also urges schools to work with federal and state agencies in finding problem areas and in moving affirmatively to bring about integrated quality education.”

With the State Board focused on integration, the Bratenahl School Board representatives presented their case for an exception from the merger requirement.  They argued for the preservation of a high-quality educational program strongly supported by village taxpayers and noted the separation of the village from Cleveland by the barriers of railroad tracks and freeway.  In a surprise to both supporters and opponents of the measure, State Senator M. Morris Jackson appeared at the hearing.  As recalled by Wellman, “he strongly, convincingly and generously supported the Bratenahl exception.”  Similarly State Board member Russell Harris expressed his support.

The next day, The Cleveland Press summarized the debate that followed the School Board’s presentation:

“‘This issue is filled with civil rights issues even if your people don’t mention it,’ snapped Wayne E. Shaffer, a former school board president. ‘How could this board ever take a position of leadership in the civil rights field if it set a horrible example of approving de facto segregation as this would be?’ he asked.  Shaffer expressed ‘deep feeling for the children involved’ but wanted to know ‘if it is fair to allow this majestic example of what we would like in schools, this affluence, to exist in the midst of a poor area?’ Wellman shot back, ‘Excellence is not gained by knocking down good.’  Elliott E. Meyers, another former board president, opened the cold shouldering of the Bratenahl matter when he tartly remarked, ‘If all of the quality areas of Cleveland pull out and refuse to be on the team, how will Cleveland’s schools ever improve?’ Sen. Jackson said the parents of Glenville Area children are complaining of overcrowding.  He could not see how moving suburban children into city schools would benefit either group. Kelley said the Legislature, in abolishing school districts that do not have a high school, intended to abolish poor districts and not those such as Bratenahl.”

Samuel Wellman concluded by asserting that the issue was not one of civil rights, but quality education.  As reported the next day, “He urged the board to make its decision only on what is best for the pupils involved.”

At this point in the proceedings, Superintendent Essex recommended to the State Board that the Bratenahl School Board’s request for exception be denied.  Faced with inevitable defeat, Wellman later summarized the reality that descended on Bratenahl supporters:

“[I]t was clear that a vote would result in a denial of an exception and termination of our district on July 1, 1968.  And, as best as could be estimated, the vote wasn’t too close – perhaps 9 votes for us versus 15 votes against.  Our matter was therefore tabled by our friends on the Board, until the June meeting.”

Robert J. Grogan, State Board member for the 22nd District, moved that a final decision on Bratenahl’s request be deferred until the next meeting of the board.  The board voted unanimously to take the matter up again at their next meeting on June 10, 1968.

As they drove back to Cleveland, the dejected supporters of the Bratenahl school system were worried.  They had seen that State Superintendent Essex and a majority of the State Board were opposed to granting the School Board an exception from the merger requirement in state law.  What could make them change their minds in one month?  They were returning to a community that faced the very real possibility that the school system would dissolve in only six weeks, the cherished Bratenahl School would close, and their school age children would be attending new schools in Cleveland come September.