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Lorain Schools superintendent predicts state takeover

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    Jeff Graham, superintendent of the Lorain Schools, talks Friday about state involvement in the district because of its testing results and academic distress status.



LORAIN — Schools Superintendent Jeff Graham said while no official decision has been made, it’s likely the district could see a state takeover as soon as April.

At a community/business/ schools partnership meeting Friday, Graham gave his interpretation of a meeting that took place Thursday in Columbus with state Superintendent Paolo DeMaria about the future of the district.

“I don’t want to understate what happened or overstate it, but we are in academic distress and that’s not going away,” he said. “Our test scores are not good. The problem is there are two laws that govern academic distress for districts and we’re stuck in the net of the first law.”

In accordance with the first law, a state-appointed academic distress commission oversees the district and set two benchmarks — that the district receives C’s on state report cards for two years in the performance index and value-added categories.

While an A grade was achieved on last year’s report card for value-added, two years of Ds in the performance index category and an F for this year’s value-added scores mean the district likely will not stay under Graham and the Board of Education’s control.

All other districts in the state are held to standards under the second law regarding academic distress, which offers a safe harbor from the changing of state tests, but Lorain doesn’t have that relief because it already was under the watch of an Academic Distress Commission.

The Ohio Department of Education established the Lorain commission in April 2013 to address years of lagging test scores and data showing Lorain students performing below academic benchmarks. The commission developed an academic recovery plan that was approved by the state, but a recovery path requires results that Lorain didn’t show with the current test results.

“And now that the tests should remain the same for the next several years, other districts are going to be losing their safe harbor status,” Graham said. “So when that happens and they’re placed under academic distress, DeMaria won’t be able to let them off the hook. So why would he do it for us if he can’t do it for them?”

Graham said that during the meeting, he, along with Board of Education president Tim Williams and member Mark Ballard, showed DeMaria that through school-purchased tests, there is student growth, despite what the state report cards say.

“DeMaria gets that it’s not all about test scores but at the end of the day, the law is the law,” Graham said. “And we might not like it, but we have to respect it.”

The state superintendent was one of two hopes the district had in avoiding a state takeover, which would appoint a new academic distress commission as well as a CEO that would have the power to hire, fire and throw out employment contracts.

The CEO doesn’t have to be someone involved in education, and the new commission would have three people appointed by the state, one person appointed by the Board of Education whose only role would be to put levies on the ballot, and one person appointed by the city’s mayor, Chase Ritenauer.

Graham said he could be considered for CEO but declined to say if he would be interested.

State Sen. Gayle Manning, R-North Ridgeville, is working on a piece of legislation that would offer the Lorain schools safe harbor as a result of the changing tests.

However, Graham, who has been with the district for more than a year and would be out the remainder of his contract if a CEO is appointed, said he’s not optimistic that it’ll come through in time.

“We could see a CEO as soon as April and as late as August,” he said. “I just don’t see the legislation happening before that.”

Manning, who was present at the meeting Thursday, did not return messages left for her Friday.

School board member Bill Sturgill said after speaking with Graham and Williams about the meeting, he’s still holding out hope.

“I love that the conversations are taking place now to try and get us out of this,” he said. “Whether or not they’re receptive to it is one thing, but I’m always hopeful this is going to come out in our favor. We just need more time and to have consistent tests. But I have full confidence in our board and Dr. Graham that this’ll work out the way it needs to.”

Williams said Friday that the visit was the first of many conversations and described it as more of a dialogue than a discussion.

“A discussion implies there’s a decision afterward and that didn’t happen, but we didn’t go down there with that expectation,” he said. “But a dialogue implies that both parties walk away with a greater understanding, and I think that did happen.”

Williams said the law is clear as to what comes next for the district but what’s really up in the air is how it’s implemented.

“A CEO has been put in place in the Youngstown district,” he said. “But we want them to realize that this law is not one-size-fits-all. What works in Youngstown and in Cleveland isn’t necessarily going to work in Lorain. You can’t just say, ‘Oh you’re getting a CEO,’ and expect the transition to be seamless. We’re going to need to work on our next steps, but I’m optimistic.”

Graham said he’s going to keep in contact with DeMaria throughout the process but he has a pretty firm idea of what the final decision is going to be.

“The law is the law,” he said. “And short of changing that, and I don’t think we will, that’s where were going to end up.”

Contact Katie Nix at 329-7129 or Follow her on Twitter at @KatieNix330.

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