Attorney argues Ohio moves too slowly in fixing schools

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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NEW LEXINGTON, O. — Ohio may be fixing up some of its most dilapidated school buildings, but it is moving far too slowly to get to all of those that need repairs, an attorney for a coalition of school districts argued here yesterday.

In more than four hours of cross-examination, attorney John Birath accused Ohio School Facilities Commission executive director, Randy Fischer, of not recognizing the size of the facilities problem.

“There are many, many serious issues that are not being addressed,” Mr. Birath said, from collapsing walls to electrical safety problems.

Mr. Fischer was testifying as a state witness in the school-funding hearings, being held here to determine if Ohio’s methods of paying for education are fair to poorer parts of the state. It was in this poor Perry County village in 1994 when those methods were first declared unconstitutional; Common Pleas Judge Linton Lewis is holding these hearings to determine if the state has done enough to make the system more fair.

Part of the state’s arguments is that it has committed more than $100 million in the last year to building new schools or renovating old ones, mostly in the state’s poorest school districts.

But Mr. Birath argued that the state would have to do much more to fix Ohio’s school buildings, which at least one study has rated the nation’s worst.

He spent much of his time discussing four reports written by private construction firms the state hired to inspect the buildings of school districts that have applied for a state repair program. The attorney said those reports contain damning indictments of the current facilities funding system.

For example, they reported that between seven and 10 per cent of the 254 districts the companies visited had structural problems in classroom buildings that amounted to “imminent dangers” to children’s safety. Included in these: walls ready to collapse or materials falling off buildings.

Mr. Fischer argued that the construction companies had a different idea of what constituted “imminent danger.” He said the percentage is more like 1 or 2 per cent, and that all of them have been or are being repaired.

One of the reports stated that, of the 57 districts that the company had visited, none had fire protection systems that met state codes. Some had no smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, or battery backup for their fire alarms.

Mr. Fischer replied “being up to code is an unattainable goal” because of recent changes in state fire safety requirements. When Mr. Birath pressured Mr. Fischer by asking if he would want his nieces or nephews to attend classes at a school without smoke detectors, he replied, after a lengthy pause: “I went to school in buildings without smoke detectors, and so did you. I did not consider that to be an unsafe environment.”

Under questioning by a state attorney, Mr. Fischer said he was upset by the implication “that the Ohio School Facilities Commission is cold hearted and does not care about the conditions that children go to school in, and that is not the case at all.”

Mr. Birath replied by stating that he was not implying anything about Mr. Fischer, but that “you can only do what the General Assembly of the state of Ohio says you can do,” and that the levels of funding were simply too low.

Mr. Birath pointed to hundreds of millions of dollars worth of improvements – ranging from handicap access to electrical systems repairs – that state officials agree are needed, but which will likely not be funded for years or more, as the state works its way up from its top priorities, the poorest school districts.

“It would take 14 years to get through [the poorest half of the state’s schools] at the rate they’re going at, assuming they get the money,” he said.

The state called its final witness yesterday, and the coalition of school districts will begin its case on Monday. The hearings will continue through the end of next week.

Official defends his school arithmetic

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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NEW LEXINGTON, O. — On the math and minutia-packed fourth day of hearings here yesterday, attorneys for a group of school districts tried to poke holes in the work of the man Ohio hired to fix its school-funding system.

Denver-based consultant John Augenblick spent his second day on the stand defending how he calculated how much the state will have to pay for its schools.

Attorney Nicholas Pittner took issue with Mr. Augenblick’s statement that he had “eyeballed” a graph to decide which school districts to include in his analysis.

“Are you aware of any literature that says that when you are making decisions affecting 1.8 million children, you can just eyeball a chart?” Mr. Pittner said.

Mr. Pittner represents the coalition of school districts who won a 1994 lawsuit against the state that declared the way Ohio funds its public schools unconstitutional.

Perry County Common Pleas Judge Linton Lewis, who ruled in that case, is holding the hearings to determine if the state has done enough to make the system fair.

Mr. Pittner criticized the numbers Mr. Augenblick used for special education, transportation, and other variables included in his recommendations to the state.

Mr. Augenblick responded to several of the attorney’s questions by saying they were “irrelevant” to what he was hired to do: calculate the per-pupil funding levels that should be guaranteed.

After Mr. Augenblick stepped down from the witness box, the afternoon was given to Randy Fischer, executive director of the Ohio School Facilities Commission.

Mr. Fischer said state spending on school buildings has gone up 4,000 per cent in this decade.

Consultant says state’s school-funding plan is ‘rational’

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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NEW LEXINGTON, O. — The consultant Ohio hired to fix its school-funding system testified yesterday that the state has done a good job – even if it hasn’t always followed his suggestions.

“It would have been wonderful if they had taken all my recommendations,” said John Augenblick, who helped redesign how public schools are paid for in more than a dozen states. “But it is my opinion that this is a rational system.”

On the day Perry County’s children started the school year, Mr. Augenblick testified for nearly four hours in the courtroom of Common Pleas Judge Linton Lewis, who declared the state’s school-funding system unconstitutional in 1994 because it is unfair to children who live in poor areas, like New Lexington.

Last year, the Ohio Supreme Court agreed, and now the case is back to Mr. Lewis, who will decide if the changes the state has made in the last year are sufficient.

Mr. Augenblick was hired by Ohio in 1997 to create a methodology for determining what is known as the base-level funding: the amount, per pupil, that school dis tricts get from the state each year. Local districts add to that amount from other fund sources.

Mr. Augenblick created a complex formula that looked at how much money Ohio’s most successful districts have spent in recent years, and used an average of those numbers to recommend a standard base level.

But this year, the General Assembly decided to throw out parts of his calculations and change others, lowering the per-student funding levels by more than $200 a year, from $4,269 to $4,063.

In a January letter, Mr. Augenblick seemed critical of the changes in his formula, saying they were “inconsistent” with a rational funding mechanism if they were made simply to lower costs. But yesterday, he said he was satisfied that the changes made were reasonable and passed constitutional muster.

“People were calling me, saying `They’re getting to a lower number.’ But after I learned what the changes in the methodology were, I felt that they were sound.”

He said he was never under any pressure from state officials to keep costs down, and that he has often testified in court cases that other state’s funding systems are unconstitutional.

Attorneys for the coalition of school districts that brought the original lawsuit have argued the per-pupil funding should be almost a thousand dollars a year higher than they are now.

In cross-examining Mr. Augenblick, coalition attorney Nicholas Pittner criticized the consultant, pointing out that he had never taught in Ohio and only once set foot in an Ohio school building.

Mr. Augenblick will retake the stand today for more cross-examination. Yesterday was the third day of hearings on the matter; they will continue through Friday.

Mayor wants to preserve historic site; Finkbeiner switches sides in Battle of Fallen Timbers

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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After spending the last two months trying to sell the Fallen Timbers battleground to commercial developers, Mayor Carty Finkbeiner announced yesterday that he wants to see it turned into a historical park.

The biggest hurdle remaining: raising the millions of dollars it will cost for preservationists to buy the land from the city. Possibilities include state and federal funds or even a levy on Lucas County residents.

“We respect the intentions of the preservationists. We think they’re right,” the mayor said. “All we ask is fair market compensation.”

The 1794 battle, which opened up this part of the Midwest to white settlement, took place primarily on a 188-acre tract of land owned by the city of Toledo.

For the last few years a coalition of preservationists have offered to buy it and turn it into a historical park.

But until yesterday – the 204th anniversary of the battle – the mayor had held back, saying the city could make more money by selling it to developers.

Now, he will join the preservationists in trying to raise the money to preserve it.

“The city of Toledo stands ready to work with any and all parties to preserve the battle site,” Mr. Finkbeiner said.

Preservationists expressed happiness at news of the mayor’s shift.

“This is the most positive statement that I have heard since the beginning of the project,” said Maumee Mayor Steve Pauken, in whose city the land lies. “Mayor Finkbeiner has sent us a very positive signal that he wants to work with us.”

Only two months ago, the city put out a call to area developers, asking them to propose ways to turn the site, along with other city land, into a commercial and industrial area.

The mayor previously had said that the city simply could get more money for the land if something other than a historical park was built there.

The city bought the land in 1987 as part of a failed attempt to extend Toledo’s borders to include undeveloped land.

But with yesterday’s announcement, plans to sell the battlefield to private interests were put on hold. Barry Broome, the city’s development director, said the Fallen Timbers land is no longer being offered to developers.

The one private developer with an option on the land, The Isaac Group of Bryan, has volunteered to “step back from their interest in the land” if preservation is possible, the mayor said.

Zac Isaac, Isaac Group vice president, said his company would not make any decisions until after area officials decide if the battleground will be preserved.

The biggest problem facing preservationists now is raising enough money to buy the land at the price Mr. Finkbeiner wants.

The mayor said he believes the fair market value of the land to be approximately $7.5 million. Preservation interests previously have offered $2.5 million.

The mayor said he will help activists try to make up the difference, appealing to federal, state, and private sources.

“There are a lot of pots [of money] to look into,” he said.

Mr. Finkbeiner said he will insist on a high sale price because the city is facing higher-than-expected costs in the North Toledo Jeep project, and it can’t afford to be selling the Fallen Timbers land at too low of a price.

“We have a lot of bills to pay,” he said.

Money from the sale of the battlefield will go directly toward paying off the $20 million loan Toledo is taking out from the federal government for Jeep expenses, he said.

The mayor did, however, repeat his earlier offer to donate 15 acres of the battlefield to the preservation effort.

He announced for the first time that he would be willing to sell an additional 15 or 20 acres to preservationists at a discounted rate.

Those two moves, he said, would put the city of Toledo’s contribution to the project at about $1.2 million.

At a meeting of the Fallen Timbers Battlefield Preservation Commission last night, Toledo city officials Ken Dobson and Steve Herwat pitched their case to battlefield advocates.

“We are in full support of preserving the battlefield,” Mr. Dobson said. “We have absolutely no opposition, and we want to be a player in making it happen.”

Still, he was peppered with angry questions from commission members, who accused Toledo of trying to block preservation efforts.

Mr. Dobson answered by saying that is no longer the city’s stance.

“This is new,” he said. “One of the interesting things in life is a change in attitude. It is a sign of growth.”

Commission leaders said they welcomed Mr. Finkbeiner’s change of heart.

“I’m thrilled,” Marianne Duvendack, commission vice president, said. “I hope it’s a permanent step and not just a political one.”

“This is a major step forward by the city,” said Dr. G. Michael Pratt, the Heidelberg College archaeologist who located the site of the battle in 1995.

Mr. Pauken said that Mr. Finkbeiner’s comments don’t ensure the land will be preserved, but they do indicate there will be productive negotiations with the city of Toledo.

“We still have a price to agree to, and other decisions to be made, and we have to find some method of raising the money,” he said. “But this is a very positive signal.”

He said he would like to see funding sources identified by the end of 1998.

One potential source for the purchase-price shortfall: a new levy for Lucas County residents. Mr. Finkbeiner said he will “very seriously ask” Metroparks officials to consider a levy campaign to purchase the land and provide funds for its maintenance.

Mr. Pauken said he would “rather look at other revenue sources first.”

But the Maumee mayor said he is very pleased by his Toledo colleague’s statements, and looks forward to cooperating with him.

“Today’s the anniversary of the battle, and it’s more of a time for healing than confrontation,” he said.

Parking-lot campers laud Toledo

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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When you think of great camping spots, the first place to come to mind probably isn’t downtown Toledo.

But this weekend, it got top marks from a group of Ohio RV enthusiasts.

The Ohio Nomads, an organization of retirees who camp all across the state, left Toledo yesterday after spending the weekend camping in the Toledo Sports Arena’s parking lot.

The Nomads gather for 12 “rallies” a year. But in their 20-year history, they hadn’t been to Toledo, according to group Vice President Vince Chudzinski.

Group member and Sylvania Township resident Lee Mayer thought it was time that changed. So she organized this weekend’s rally, bringing about 25 RVs and 50 people to the city for a bit of urban camping.

“I kind of wanted to show off Toledo, especially the waterfront,” she said.

Campers began arriving Thursday and have spent the last few days exploring what Toledo has to offer: Tony Packo’s, the Toledo Zoo, COSI. They spent time in International Park, right across Main Street in East Toledo, and on a boat tour of the Maumee River.

But the biggest appeal, according to some campers, was the view. Most campers can look skyward at night and see stars; not many can see skyscrapers.

“It was wonderful – all the lights and the scenery,” said Bob Bell, 68, of Anna, O., near Dayton.

Mr. Bell said he hadn’t spent much time in Toledo before this weekend; when he drives to Michigan, “we always take [U.S.] 23 to get around the city.”

But he liked what he saw here on this trip.

“I’ll be glad to come back,” he said. “We’ve been meaning to come up here, but you know us old retired people – we always have too many things to do.”

Dixieland swings at Hungarian fest

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 13

They don’t make chicken paprikas in south Louisiana, but you wouldn’t know it from the sound coming from East Toledo yesterday afternoon.

Six men from Szeged, Hungary, assembled at the Birmingham Ethnic Festival yesterday to play the music Louis Armstrong helped start decades ago in New Orleans.

The Molnar Dixieland Hungarian Jazz Band was an odd mix – the most authentic Hungarian performers at a Hungarian festival, playing a uniquely American sound.

“The music Louis Armstrong was playing in the 1930s is close to Hungarian music,” said bandleader and clarinetist Gyula Molnar, through an interpreter.

Their appearance at the annual festival fits snugly in the bizarre Toledo tradition of intermingling New Orleans-style Dixieland and Hungarians. For decades, the Cakewalkin’ Jass Band has been the house act at Tony Packo’s, perhaps America’s most prominent Hungarian hot spot.

“Dixieland matches well with the upbeat, happy Hungarian music,” said Martin Nagy, the executive director of the Lake Erie West Arts Council, which helped bring the band to Toledo.

And at yesterday’s Birmingham Ethnic Festival – which, with its Chinese food and temporary tattoos, has lost some of its Hungarian feel in recent years – the Molnars were one of the few authentic touches of the old country.

“A lot of people have asked them, `Are you really Hungarian?”‘ said Elizabeth Balint, a Toledo volunteer who has been helping the band.

The Arts Council, with Toledo Sister Cities International, helped to bring the Molnars from Szeged, Toledo’s sister city in Hungary. They’ve been in the area for the last two weeks, playing shows around northwest Ohio and staying in a home in the Birmingham neighborhood.

Back in Hungary or on their European tours, the band usually plays strictly Dixieland jazz, “with paprika or a little spice,” Mr. Molnar said. But when they came to America, they decided to play more Hungarian music to appeal to a crowd that rarely sees it.

The tour may have begun the career of a new star, handsome 26-year-old trombonist Attila Almasi. At yesterday’s concert, he played some show-stopping licks with his feet, and he has attracted a coterie of young female admirers.

“After one show, there was a plate of Hungarian apple strudel waiting for him,” Ms. Balint said. “The young girls are following him.” The shy Mr. Almasi had no comment.

All except Mr. Almasi view the band as a second job; their other positions range from librarian to high school teacher. And at least one member’s professional experience has come in handy on their American trip.

When the band was playing at Catawba Island a few days ago, members spied a young girl watching the performance through a gusher of tears. They realized she had chipped her tooth after she and a friend were playing around with a flashlight.

Pianist-dentist Lajos Csanadi came to the rescue – with medical advice, and what proved to be the best medicine of all.

“He sat her down on his lap and played for her,” Ms. Balint said. “That worked well.”

Woody Guthrie reborn; A new side to the legendary folk singer has emerged, thanks to his daughter’s decision to open his remarkable archives

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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When you think of Woody Guthrie, you think in black and white.

You think of dust bowls and desperation, of socialism and slow train rides. His image – earnest folkie troubadour, roaming America from sea to shining sea – is as set in stone as the faces in Mount Rushmore.

So how does it change things to know he thought about flying saucers? That he fantasized about Ingrid Bergman? That he wrote songs he called “supersonic boogies?”

How does it change the image of a legend to learn that he was a man, not an icon?

Woody Guthrie, dead three decades, is being reborn, and the new Woody is far from the dour left-winger who inspired the folk movement of the 1960s. Instead, he’s a little bit silly, and a lot more human.

“He’s not just a serious folk singer,” says Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and fighter for his image, the person singly most responsible for the man’s belated comeback.

Nora Guthrie’s most potent weapon in her battles sits on West 57th Street in New York City. There, she runs the Woody Guthrie Archive, and one of the most astonishing collections of untapped art American music has ever seen: 3,000 Woody Guthrie songs never recorded, some never read by anyone.

And now, she’s letting other artists get their hands on those songs to convince the world that her father’s songs aren’t stuck in the 1930s, or trapped in the purist constraints of folk music. They’re as up-to-date as you want them to be.

“You wanna kill a song? Tell someone they have to play it a certain way, that’s how,” Nora Guthrie says.

Woody Guthrie’s life was an unending string of tragedies. As a child in Okemah, Okla., his sister was burned up in a fire, his father went broke, and his mother was committed to a mental hospital.

But he did manage to write beautiful, brilliant songs about the poor and downtrodden, stirring songs about America’s beauty and the need for a classless society. He was the first self-appointed Voice of the Common Man, The Grapes of Wrath with a six-string, leavened with his Okie wit.

(Schoolchildren will know him best as the man who wrote the song they sing after the Pledge of Allegiance, “This Land Is Your Land.” That it is sung reverently as a patriotic hymn is ironic, considering that Woody was branded a Communist throughout the McCarthy era, and was certainly a socialist.(His famous quote on the topic: “I’m not a Communist, but I’ve been in the red all my life.”)

Music historians disagree, as they always do, but Woody Guthrie has been called everything from the first folk singer to the first singer-songwriter. And what is unquestionable is that he had an enormous influence on rock and roll, mostly through the conduit of Bob Dylan, who idolized him.

A lot of Woody’s songs had what the wags would call a “message,” pushing for things like unionization or equality. But to limit your view of him to those message songs – railing against capitalism or racism or poverty – is to miss a whole other side to his music.

Find, for example, the “message” in this:

Hoodoo voodoo, seven twenty one two

Haystacka hostacka A B C

High poker, low joker, ninety nine a zero

Sidewalk, streetcar, dance a goofy dance

No need to summon up your inner English major to analyze those lines: It’s a song Woody wrote for his children – and there’s nary a complaint about fascists to be found.

“He wrote some incredible stuff, but because of illness and war and other things that stopped him, we’re stuck in time with him as an artist,” Nora says. “Let’s just say the truth, that he wrote songs about Joe DiMaggio and Ingrid Bergman and not just Dust Bowl stuff.”

“Hoodoo Voodoo” was never recorded in Woody’s lifetime. It’s one of the thousands of lyrics – scrawled on scraps of paper, in notebooks, or in diaries – that rests in the Guthrie Archive.

The reason those songs never got played is that Woody was too sick. In 1952, after his behavior had become more and more erratic, he was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a debilitating nerve disorder that took his body and his voice. He stayed in a mental ward and a hospital bed until his death in 1967.

But he didn’t stop writing until near the very end, and those songs, thousands of them, are what make up the archives.

After Woody’s death, all his papers were boxed and toted from place to place around New York City by his wife, who would also answer fan mail out of a Manhattan office. Eventually, responsibility passed to Nora. (Woody has two other living children, including folk singer Arlo Guthrie.)

Nora had been busy raising a family of her own, after working as a dancer and choreographer. When her youngest was old enough, Nora started coming into the office to help out, stuffing envelopes and licking stamps.

“It just escalated,” she says. “The material kept nudging me. I started going through all the file cabinets and said, Oh, this is cool. My creative mind just got tapped.”

She decided that her father’s material was too important not to preserve. She hired an archivist to protect and organize all the lyrics, as well as the thousands of other writings, artwork, and belongings in the archives. Now, to examine the lyrics, scholars put on white gloves and handle with care.

And, just as important, she decided that her father’s material was too important not to share. Nora wanted to get her father’s work into the public eye, to convince the world it knew only part of him.

The first project was an ani mated children’s video based on “This Land Is Your Land,” modeled in part after the videos Nora’s kids had watched. Then came a record of Woody songs sung by his family, based on a long-lost songbook from the 1940s. That record earned a Grammy nomination.

After her initial successes, Nora started to think about how best to get attention for Woody’s music. “I thought, we should be producing stuff and getting this stuff out, instead of waiting for people to come to us.”

That’s when she decided she would approach British protest singer and punk-folkie Billy Bragg, for what has become the centerpiece of the Woody revival.

Nora had long been a fan of Bragg, the brash cockney who in the 1980s scrawled “This guitar says sorry” on the face of his guitar to emulate Guthrie, who famously wrote, “This machine kills fascists” on the face of his.

She proposed that Bragg have a look at the archives’ lyrical stash, choose what he liked, and make an album.

“I sent him a little bag full of stuff, and said, It’s stuff like this,” Nora remembers. “He said, I’ll be right over.”

Bragg brought in the American roots-pop band Wilco to help him on the album. Woody left no musical notation for any of the lyrics, so Bragg and Wilco songwriters Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett had to construct a tune for each song.

The result, an album called “Mermaid Avenue” after the Coney Island street the Guthries lived on in the 1950s, is extraordinary. Bragg and Wilco reinvent Woody’s old songs and make them their own – which is precisely what Nora Guthrie wanted.

“Some of them sound like Billy’s songs, and some of them sound like Jeff’s,” Nora says. “I told them, Make believe some guy next door brought over some lyrics and said, Here, play with this. I didn’t want them to be inhibited because they’re Woody Guthrie songs.”

The music ranges from rollicking drinking songs to acoustic ballads and does just what Nora wanted – that Woody Guthrie was more than just a Dust Bowl singer.

There are joyous songs about a late-night carousing with Walt Whitman’s niece, the silly rhymes of “Hoodoo Voodoo,” and a fantasy about making love to Ingrid Bergman on a volcano. There are also songs on more traditional Guthrie topics, like the great union song “I Guess I Planted” and the political irony of “Christ For President.” But folk purists looking for Pete Seeger-style strumming might be disappointed by the variety.

“Mermaid Avenue” has gotten universally positive reviews, and will no doubt make many critics’ year-end top 10 lists. It has also made Woody Guthrie, never fashionable or famous during his playing days, hot.

Bragg and Wilco recorded about 40 songs for “Mermaid Avenue,” and the rest could be released on a second album next year. (That one would likely include “My Flying Saucer,” Woody’s 1950 lyric he wanted to be played as a “supersonic boogie.”) And alt-folkie Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label will release a live album of a Woody tribute concert held at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Work has just been completed on a Smithsonian Institute touring exhibit on Woody’s life; it will go around the country in late 1999 or early 2000. Several children’s books are in the works, including one based on “This Land Is Your Land.”

Otherwise, Nora is busy doling out lyrics to the people she thinks they work for, like some ersatz Santa. “I’ll just read a lyric and say, `This is a Lou Reed song,’ or `This is a Dylan song,’ or `This is a heavy metal song or a rap tune’,” she says.

Her current project: working with klezmer superstars The Klezmatics to release an album of Woody’s Jewish songs. “The Klezmatics aren’t going to come to me and say, `Hey, got any Jewish songs?”‘ she laughs. “So I’ve got to go to them.”

Eventually Nora will open up the lyric archives to anyone from Joan Baez to the Jungle Brothers. Until then, though, she wants to keep some control of the lenses through which her father’s work is viewed.

It’s an odd position for Nora to be in, essentially serving as the agent and publicist of a man dead for 31 years. But she said she is having the time of her life getting her father’s work out.

“We just laugh and say Woody’s in charge of this,” she says. “I just answer the phone.”

Legislators vent anger over break at prison; Warden tells of errors that permitted escape firm’s official is ‘very, very sorry’

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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COLUMBUS — The men and women who run Youngstown’s private prison said they are “very, very sorry” about last month’s escape of five murderers, but they still got quite a talking-to by Ohio legislators yesterday.

“You are very fortunate that none of these men killed anybody, because they’ve shown they will,” said Sen. Jeffrey Johnson (D., Cleveland).

The apology and anger occurred at a hearing of the General Assembly’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, which is investigating the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center. That private prison, Ohio’s first, has been rocked by two inmate murders, several stabbings, and the July 25 escape of six convicted felons, five of them killers.

“This has created a great deal of trauma in the state, and we are very, very sorry for that,” said J. Michael Quinlan, director of planning for by Corrections Corp. of America, the company that owns and operates the center.

Throughout their testimony, Mr. Quinlan and other corporation officials were repeatedly advised by a company attorney not to reveal too much about what happened on the day of the escape. But the center’s warden, Jimmy Turner, did reveal several staff errors that he said contributed to the escape’s success.

Staff members patrolling the prison perimeter did not immediately respond when alarms at the fence line started going off around 2:30 p.m. that day, when the prisoners were allegedly cutting through the wire, he said. And an officer in charge of watching over a prison recreation yard left his post to use the bathroom just before the escape, leaving a large area of the yard unsupervised, he said.

Human errors like those were responsible for the escape, Mr. Turner said. “The policies and procedures were in place. The decisions made were wrong.”

The warden said that one of the upgrades being made in the prison’s security system involves the fence alarms, which in the past have gone off even when an escape was not being attempted. He did not say if those previous false alarms had anything to do with the lack of a staff response on July 25.

Four of the men who escaped were in the center on murder convictions; a fifth was in for assault, but he has been convicted of murder. Those five men have all been captured and are in the custody of U.S. marshals. The sixth remains at large, and officials believe he may have fled to Canada.

The prison gets all of its inmates from the Washington, D.C., court system.

Members of the legislative committee, which is bipartisan and includes House and Senate members, spent much of the afternoon debating what options the state has to tighten security or shut the center.

After negotiations with the city of Youngstown, the corporation has agreed to remove all maximum and high-medium-security prisoners from the center, leaving only medium and minimum-security inmates. But the six escapees, including the killers, were all medium-security, several members pointed out.

Mr. Johnson said the lack of oversight the state has over the center and the fact that the company is not revealing some information about the escape show the flaw in converting a public prison to private business.

“The difference in a public prison is that if a manager lets six felons out in broad daylight, we can do something to get that person out,” Mr. Johnson said. “We can’t do that with [CCA].”

The corporation’s attorney, Timothy Bojanowski, responded by saying the company’s silence comes at the request of federal officials, who are investigating if a prison staff member helped in the escape.

“We don’t want to do anything to impede this investigation at all,” he said. Mr. Quinlan said the possibility of inside help at the prison “is not an excuse,” although he and other corporation employees mentioned it several times throughout their testimony as a mitigating factor.

The committee is to meet in Youngstown sometime later this month to hold a public hearing on the prison.

State can’t shut prison, report says; Youngstown wants site to stay open

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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COLUMBUS — The state of Ohio has no easy way to shut the violence-riddled private prison in Youngstown, and local officials want to see it stay open, state officials said yesterday.

“It is apparent that there is no legal action the state could pursue to immediately close the prison,” Governor Voinovich said after receiving a report from Attorney General Betty Montgomery saying the state is powerless, at least in the short term, to shut down the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center.

A hearing on the facility’s problems is scheduled for today by the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, the state legislature’s nonpartisan prison research arm.

The corrections center, a private prison owned by Nashville-based Correction Corp. of America, has faced steady controversy since opening last year. Two inmates have been murdered, a number of prisoners have been stabbed, and at least three prison staff members have been assaulted.

The most recent debacle occurred July 25, when six prisoners, four of them convicted murderers, escaped by cutting through wire fencing. Five of the six have been recaptured. The prison takes prisoners from out-of-state.

Candidates in this fall’s elections, not wanting to seem insufficiently opposed to murderers running loose, have latched onto the issue, some calling for the facility to be shut down.

But the report, put together by the attorney general’s staff, said the state has “no simple approaches or clear remedies” to close the center.

State officials said such remedies were not necessary, however, because Youngstown Mayor George McKelvey doesn’t want to see the center shut down, as long as the city’s security concerns are met.

“Mayor McKelvey told me today personally that he’d prefer the prison stay open with proper negotiated safeguards,” Ms. Montgomery wrote in her report.

The city of Youngstown, having faced economic collapse in the 1980s with the demise of its steel industry, had attracted the center to northeast Ohio in 1995 for its 350 permanent jobs.

Mr. McKelvey could not be reached for comment last night.

Richard Cordray, the Democrat who is running against Ms. Montgomery for attorney general in the fall, said he was “outraged” at her report, saying it was incorrect in saying the state has no power to shut the prison.

“Betty Montgomery and I fundamentally disagree about the need for the attorney general to act aggressively to protect the public safety,” Mr. Cordray said. “The attorney general has broad power to use the nuisance law to protect the state welfare. She has a million excuses on how not to protect Ohioans.”

Mr. Cordray last week called for the state to close the center by suing it for a breach of contract, declaring it a public nuisance, and turning it into a state-owned facility.

But Ms. Montgomery’s report said that is unrealistic, as any breach of contract suit would have to be brought by the city of Youngstown, not the state. The report said that declaring the prison a nuisance would likely not stand up in court as a way to take control of the facility.

“She is wriggling to find every excuse not to do what I’ve outlined,” Mr. Cordray said.

Among the most serious complaints leveled against the corporation is that it has housed maximum-security prisoners – including murderers – after promising authorities that it would house only medium-security ones. They are brought in through a contract the corporation has with Washington to house its worst prisoners.

“What the governor needs to do is call CCA and say, `I want you to remove the murderers and rapists from Youngstown,”‘ said Steve Fought, spokesman for Democrat Mary Boyle. Ms. Boyle is running for a U.S. Senate seat this fall against Mr. Voinovich.

The campaign for Republican Bob Taft, who is running to succeed Mr. Voinovich as governor this fall, supports the incumbent’s actions, a spokesman said. “We want to see what’s best for the safety and economic viability of the community,” Brett Buerck said.

Mr. Taft’s opponent, Democrat Lee Fisher, was at a fund-raiser with Vice President Gore last night and could not be reached for comment.

In a prepared statement, corporation officials said they will review Ms. Montgomery’s report and cooperate with state and local officials.

Kaptur pledge urges against big spending

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

Page 3

COLUMBUS — U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur is asking politicians to do something that doesn’t come naturally to many – stop spending money, voluntarily.

Miss Kaptur (D., Toledo), at a news conference here yesterday, introduced a voluntary pledge she is asking all statewide candidates to take, restricting the money they would spend in campaigns, stopping negative ads, and limiting so-called “soft money.”

“This is the most important issue we face in this country today,” she said. “It is so critical that we stop these unreasonable amounts of spending.”

Under the Kaptur pledge, candidates would agree to spend no more than either three times the salary of the position they are running for, or the average amount spent by all candidates for that office in the last 10 years.

They’d also agree to limit soft money – unregulated money from corporations, labor organizations, and wealthy individuals – to one-third of what candidates for that office have spent in the last decade.

After years of failed attempts at campaign finance reform in Washington, the time is right to take reform to the state level, Miss Kaptur said.

“Our state capitals have the ability to be in the lead on this issue, and I hope our candidates for public office will do their part,” she said.

Statewide candidates running in Ohio this fall did not seem to leap at the chance to take the pledge and restrict their own spending levels.

“We will spend money within the federal laws,” said Caryn Candisky, spokeswoman for the Senate campaign of Republican George Voinovich, declining to accept the tougher restrictions of Miss Kaptur’s proposal.

Governor Voinovich’s Democratic challenger, Mary Boyle, will consider taking the pledge, said her spokesman, Steve Fought. “Marcy’s made a great contribution to the debate,” said Mr. Fought, who last year was Miss Kaptur’s press secretary.

Brett Buerck, spokesman for the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Bob Taft, said he would want to wait a few years to see how current campaign finance reforms fare before considering adopting any new ones.

Lee Fisher, Mr. Taft’s challenger, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Among other parts of the Kaptur pledge: a promise to avoid all negative advertising; electronic disclosure of all campaign contributions, and support of free TV airtime for all candidates.

Miss Kaptur said she will be taking the pledge to individual candidates in the coming months, as well as to the editorial boards of the state’s newspapers, which routinely interview all candidates for major office to determine who will get endorsements.