Youngstown school leader Justin Jennings spent $5 million on dead internet plan for district
The Youngstown City School District received a huge opportunity for the students and the district when it received more than $77 million in federal funds from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER and Cares Act during the pandemic. The emergency funds were handed out to help school districts safely reopen and to help address significant learning loss from the COVID-19 pandemic on the students and their families.
While national stories reported school districts were slow to spend the federally provided funds, that wasn’t the case in Youngstown with then CEO and current district superintendent Justin Jennings who spoke with The Washington Post in October 2022 about Youngstown district spending its funds faster than most schools around the country.
This infusion of funding allowed the Youngstown City School District to get some much-needed items and services for the students, including updated Chromebooks and in-facility and mobile health care services for students and staff; however, not all the money spent by Jennings for the district was as fruitful.
In this months-long 21 News Watchdog investigation, we look at how the district wasted millions of federal and district funds for projects that ended up not helping a single student or employee in the district.
THE INTERNET PLAN
In 2020, Youngstown City School District CEO Justin Jennings had an idea to use the federally-provided pandemic funds to install a series of cellular Wi-Fi towers throughout the city, providing internet service for students, employees, and, eventually, the community.
By 2021, Jennings entered into a $17 million contract to buy and install Wi-Fi towers around the city from Insight Enterprises of Chandler, Arizona. The company offers a remote digital classroom concept which would allow for homeschooling through its private Wi-Fi internet service for the district’s students and teachers.
By November of that year, Jennings invited Insight to share his remote broadband connectivity vision with city and local officials during an invite-only meeting. Some of those who attended the cellular internet proposal meeting included Youngstown City Law Director Jeff Limbian, executive director of the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments Jim Kinnick, and the mayor’s chief of staff, Nikki Posterli.
The crowd listened as Insight informed those in attendance of the need to use the city’s buildings, towers, and utility poles to send the wireless signal throughout the city and the tone of the meeting quickly changed.
A source at the meeting - who wished not to be identified - confirmed with 21 News that the meeting became contentious when Limbian questioned why the school district would enter into a contract with the broadband company that involved the need to use city buildings and light poles without first speaking with city officials over liability concerns over the district-owned equipment on city property. The city informed the district it did not own all the utility poles in question needed to make the project work.
The plan died that day in that meeting – lost and forgotten.
Also lost that day was more than $5 million of federally-provided ESSER funds for the equipment Jennings had ordered prior to the November 2021 meeting. While Jennings said he was able to cancel the bulk of the contract, the district had to pay for the equipment it had ordered.
Today, millions of dollars of cellular equipment sit in the district’s bus garage collecting dust. All that remains of the planned project are towers and antennas, all on dozens of pallets at the facility on Teamster Drive in the city.
21 News has obtained a copy of the ‘Community Wireless Broadband Project Kick-Off’ PowerPoint initial presentation from October 2020, which shows that Jennings had been in communication for an Open Access Mesh Wi-Fi Internet for at least a year before the meeting with city officials and other entities.
While a source at that 2021 meeting claimed that Jennings initially denied that he had entered into the multi-million dollar broadband contract with Insight, however, school district purchase orders show otherwise.
A copy of the district’s ESSER funds spending – obtained by 21 News – shows that Jennings spent $5,023,081.48 with Insight, with eight checks written to the company between October 19, 2021 through October 31, 2022.
The bulk of the money spent with the company was made to the company in 2022 – one payment on May 25 for $2,000,000, followed by a $2,000,000 payment on July 14 and another payment for $1,016,617.40 on October 7.
Purchase orders and package lists obtained by 21 News through anonymous sources show that the district received dozens of pallets of boxes labeled “internet equipment” and “wireless internet equipment.”
In 2022, between February and June, the district received additional pallets of network switches, mounting brackets, capacitors, and 5G cellular equipment to deploy the signal throughout the city, up to seven months after Jennings claimed the deal was dead.
21 News has obtained photos and video of the equipment being stored inside the district warehouse, and verified the content of the boxes through the tracking numbers on the boxes to the purchase orders.
21 News reporter Madison Tromler asked Jennings about the internet equipment and the payments to the company and whether he sought competitive bids for the project recently at a Youngstown Board of Education meeting.
Jennings said that the district was not required to seek bids if the items or services were purchased through a cooperative that handles the bidding process for schools.
“Before we started, we had to buy equipment. So, we had to pay for the equipment we purchased. We pulled the plug before then, but the equipment was already ordered, so we had to pay for that,” Jennings said.
Jennings admitted he bought the equipment before learning of issues involving the ownership of the utility poles, and the concerns of the city but told 21 News the city was made aware of the plan as soon as he learned that the Wi-Fi signals would need to be bounced around the city, attached to street light poles or telephone poles, but didn’t say who within the city he had spoken with.
When asked if he felt he had done his homework on the project, Jennings stated, “I did my due diligence.”
“Everything we’ve done and everything we have spent the money on has been approved by ODE (Ohio Department of Education), so we have done those things, and we have done the things correctly,” Jennings stated.
But 21 News reached out to the Ohio Department of Education, who told us that they don’t approve or review school district plans.
In an emailed response, the Ohio Department of Education stated, “The Department approves districts’ plans for basic uses of funds. The plans do not get into details or the manner of delivery of those details. The Department does not review or approve contracts districts enter with vendors. A district is responsible and accountable to follow the requirements and assurances in its application/plan.”
“I had a right to enter into the contract as CEO,” Jennings said, referencing to when Ohio House Bill 70 removed district oversight and purchases from the Youngstown Board of Education in 2015 and put Youngstown schools under the sole control of a Chief Executive Officer.
The district was returned to Board-control on July 1, 2022, shifting Jennings to superintendent.
While the equipment isn’t returnable, Jennings said he plans to repurpose the millions of dollars of equipment for other uses.
“It’s not wasted,” Jennings said, “But we just don’t have a use for it at this point….” He said he is working with Youngstown State and working with a couple local municipalities to find uses for the cellular equipment and towers and has the district’s IT department looking for ways to use the equipment.
“We were trying to do something, and it didn’t work,” Jennings said.
This is part one of three in the 21 News Watchdog investigation, YCSD: Following the Money.