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Lorain Schools willing to work with state in CEO transition


LORAIN — Lorain native Stephen Stohla is a superintendent without a school district in his Youngstown position.

A 1966 Admiral King High School graduate and a finalist in the 2012 Lorain Schools’ superintendent search, Stohla works as the interim superintendent in a district where he has no power, and his home school district will be next to face that fate.

Stohla was appointed to the Youngstown district, which was slapped with the same “academic distress” label as Lorain City Schools, in summer 2015 and was expected to stay on for about six months. His role was to help ease the transition from a traditional school model to one that includes an almost all-powerful CEO, in accordance with state House Bill 70. In Youngstown, that CEO was to be Krish Mohip.

“That’s turned into a full year now,” Stohla said. “There have been a quite a few hurdles with the CEO takeover that they wanted to keep me on staff longer than planned. There were a couple of lawsuits that needed to be resolved with people fighting back on the CEO takeover and they really wanted to be thorough with this transition.”

Stohla said the district still has a superintendent position because while Mohip has complete control, he isn’t an educator, and state law requires that an educator be part of the leadership.

“These are really uncharted waters,” he said. “And what Lorain chooses to do with its leadership will be dependent on what kind of CEO it gets. This is just so unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and there have been a lot of flaws when it comes to trying to figure out who is in charge of what.”

Stohla, who previously was superintendent in the Brookfield and Alliance districts, said that while Lorain might want to fight against the purview of a CEO, it likely will not help.

“(Youngstown Schools) sued for the right to keep our district the way it was here and lost,” he said. “Lorain can kick and scream and cry all they want, but they aren’t going to be the first to do this and they certainly aren’t going to be the last.”

Academic distress

The Lorain district was placed under academic distress in April 2013 and an appointed commission has been trying to remove that designation — attempts that have been unsuccessful.

To lose the academically distressed label, the district needed to score C’s on the performance index and value-added section of its state report cards for two years in a row. In 2015, the district got a D in performance index but an A in value-added, which some hoped would show the district was making progress.

Then in 2016, the district once again earned a D in its performance index and took a nosedive in value-added, earning an F. Most districts in the state saw a decline, citing that the state tests changed three times in as many years.

“Our test scores aren’t good,” Lorain Superintendent Jeff Graham said. “But it’s hard to hold us accountable for something that can’t be measured from one year to the next. If the tests are different, the results are different, which means progress is different. The scores are bad, but the system we’re comparing them to isn’t great either.”

Since then, the district has been scrambling to avoid a takeover. If a takeover happens, a new academic distress commission would be appointed: The state superintendent would recommend three members, the school board president would recommend one who must be a teacher, and the mayor would appoint the final member.

In accordance with House Bill 70, which was passed in 2015, the new academic distress commission will appoint a CEO who will have almost complete control over the district.

“(The state bill) was originally conceived to give distressed districts positive tools to help improve with things like eye exams, and then it went to the state Senate where they added on the Youngstown Plan as an amendment, which is the section of the bill that creates the CEO takeover,” said state Rep. Dan Ramos, D-Lorain. “It was named after Youngstown because that was the first district it would affect, but it applied to everyone at the time. Everyone who represented the two counties voted against it, but it just wasn’t enough.”

The CEO would assume all governing control from the local Board of Education with the exception of the ability to put tax levies and bond issues on the ballot.

On Oct. 20, Graham, school board president Tim Williams and school board member Mark Ballard met with state Superintendent Paolo DeMaria in Columbus.

Graham has said that while he believes DeMaria listened to the district’s argument as to why it should receive safe harbor — something other districts received as a result of the changing tests — the district is getting a CEO.

DeMaria could have offered Lorain the same safe harbor provisions the other districts have received. Another option for Lorain to avoid a CEO was to gain safe harbor by way of legislation passed by the General Assembly and approved by Gov. John Kasich.

Graham said that legislation is no longer an option in the lame duck session of the General Assembly, and Lorain school board member Jim Smith said he believes Kasich would have vetoed the legislation anyway.

Moving target

Over the last three years, the state tests that determine the school report card grades have changed annually, which Graham said has made it next to impossible to compare the scores from year to year.

Lorain Schools has been giving state-approved, self-assessed exams each year that show the district is growing, but the tests don’t affect the report card scores.

“As soon as we grasp a test, they go and change it,” Youngstown Board of Education President Brenda Kimble said. “To me, this is a depressing situation to be in. This bill was written in such a way that academics and curriculum aren’t even priorities. It’s all smoke screens. This was completely wrong and it makes me sick that this is happening to another district.”

Kimble said she doesn’t think the plan is good for any district in Ohio, especially those in urban areas.

“Maybe things would be different if our CEO had been someone that was from our district,” she said. “The fact is Mohip was brought in because of his work in Chicago, another urban district. But not all urban districts are the same. Our problems are all different. What’s wrong in Youngstown isn’t what’s wrong in Lorain.”

Ramos said when compared with other districts with the same demographics, Lorain isn’t the worst of the bunch and isn’t the worst when compared with poorer, rural districts.

“A takeover just doesn’t feel right here,” he said. “It comes off like someone needing to come in and teach us poor folk how to get an education. It’s the mentality that only rich people can come in and teach and learn. Wealthier districts aren’t being held to these standards. Just the poor districts that aren’t racially monochromatic.”

Ramos said if he had a choice, the part of House Bill 70 that allowed for a CEO would be scrapped, and both Lorain and Youngstown would be allowed safe harbor.

“I don’t mind state input or improving the commission because it’s very clear that there are problems — like kids who maybe haven’t slept the night before or haven’t been fed — but districts in impoverished areas have a harder time keeping achievement scores up,” he said. “I agree that we need pressure to improve through the academic distress commission, but if you put too much pressure on something, like by adding in a CEO, it’ll break.”

Rocky start

Mohip got off to a rocky start by cutting back board meetings to once a month and then attempting to approve tax abatements for a hotel, something that is typically left up to the school board and isn’t clearly outlined in House Bill 70.

“This legislation is really problematic so far as it’s not clear who is in charge of certain things,” Youngstown Board of Education member Corrine Sanderson said. “It’s all written very broadly and things that we feel belong to the board are really being absorbed by the CEO. Communication has been completely dismantled.”

On Oct. 25, Mohip took charge of a board meeting that led to three of the seven members, including Sanderson, walking out.

“Really I think stripping the board of its powers is a violation of the state and national constitution,” Smith said. “We have a representative government, and the CEO situation basically overrides everyone’s right to the election process. The situation isn’t about what’s good or bad. It’s about legal or illegal.”

Youngstown Board of Education member Ronald Shadd said he believes the provisions in House Bill 70 hamper the power of boards as well as the voters.

“It’s the voters’ rights to choose their school board and they choose the board based on the decisions they believe they’re going to make, so by taking away the board’s power to make decisions,” he said. “What is that, if it isn’t taking away voters’ rights?”

CEO’s impending powers

In the second year of a takeover, the CEO gains the authority to close struggling schools, impose a turnaround plan for them or convert them into charter schools.

“This plan is much worse than people think it is,” Ramos said. “The CEO has to come in and have a plan for the district to improve, but it also has to find a way to expand charter schools in the district. That’s actually part of the law and I’m terribly concerned that it’s been the plan all along. We have all of these brand new buildings that are perfect for someone to stick a charter school in.”

Shadd said the Youngstown district’s buildings are all less than 15 years old, which makes them perfect for a charter school. Kimble said she believes the charter school aspect is one of the only reasons the legislation was passed in the first place.

“This just feels like a series of smoke screens to keep us distracted from seeing the real thing — this was set up to turn public buildings into charter schools all along,” she said. “I’m sure of it. That’s why it was added into the legislation at the last minute.”

In the third year, the CEO can suspend any rules in employment contracts as long as they don’t decrease benefits or pay.

“I’d be curious as to what issues the CEO would find with our contract,” Lorain teachers union president Jay Pickering said. “I’m not sure who would consider it unfair it any way. I think it’s a really fair contract. I think it shows that some of the CEO’s duties are aimed at undermining the unions but our contract isn’t a bad thing. It was actually approved with some input from the academic distress commission.”

Lorain Schools is in the first year of a three-year contract.

“This just feels really unfair with everyone getting safe harbor and it’s not happening for Lorain,” Pickering said. “The teachers are frustrated and morale is really very low. The statistics show that we’re teaching more than a year’s worth of material to our students in one school year. They feel like the work they’re doing doesn’t matter to the state.”

By the fifth year, the mayor of Lorain has the authority to appoint the five school board members. Elections for the school board would only return after the district is no longer considered failing.

“I’m aware of my responsibility in this process and it will be a process as many parts are still moving and many variables are still unknown,” Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer said. “I support Dr. Graham, the board, the commission and the progress that has been made and will work to make sure the progress that we have made is known. I will do everything in my power to keep our effective local leaders working in our schools.”

Move toward rebuilding

Members of the Youngstown school board said one of the most important things Lorain schools should keep in mind going forward is who would be on the new academic distress commission.

“You need to keep in touch with them and remain involved in the process,” Sanderson said. “Your chairman should definitely be someone who respects you as a board and respects the community as well as the government officials involved in the process.”

Sanderson also noted Lorain Schools shouldn’t take the transition lying down and playing dead but should work to build a relationship with the people in charge of their district.

“Here we put forth a lawsuit to try and get what we wanted, and I just don’t think that was the answer. Maybe if we had done a voter referendum we would have been more successful,” she said. “But the most important thing moving forward is to not give up and work with each other to regain control of their district by focusing on the academics.”

Graham said he wants to make sure the community is involved and informed throughout the process, from selecting a new academic distress commission to when the CEO is selected.

“We want to make it pretty clear that there is no other path for the district other than a CEO,” he said. “Now what we want to do moving forward is speed up the process so we can get this together as quickly as possible.”

Graham, who could potentially be out of a job after a CEO is appointed, initially said a new commission would be in place as soon as the spring. Now he’s hoping it happens closer to January to allow faculty and staff to apply for other jobs if need be; most districts begin hiring in April.

“Say a CEO comes in and wants to clean house, especially at the administrative level,” he said. “If the CEO doesn’t get put in place until May or June and then fires a ton of people, he or she won’t be able to get new people in place that late in the year and the folks who have lost their jobs won’t be able to get new ones.”

Graham was not willing to comment on his role in a reimagined Lorain school district, but by the end of the 2016-17 school year, he’ll have one year remaining on his contract. If he’s released from it early, he will be paid his salary and insurance premiums as well as unused vacation and person days.

Graham said he hopes the Board of Education will be involved in the district in a “legitimate way,” suggesting that the CEO could delegate powers back to the board rather than retaining all of them.

“This could be a good thing if it’s done right,” he said. “Right now, there’s a lot of fear going around but we really should be focusing on the realities instead. Every district is different and there’s a way we can work with each other here.”

Graham said he also believes it’s important to have students at the table because they are the ones most affected by the changes coming to Lorain Schools.

“I mean ultimately we’re here to educate and I think if we don’t take into account whether or not this is really working at the student level, that’s wrong,” he said. “Everyone needs to be engaged in this process for it to work.”

Youngstown school board member Shadd said if he had one piece of advice for the Lorain community, it was to show up at meetings and to stay informed.

“This is your district and these are your kids,” he said. “We want to have a partner in this battle and it’s important to know what’s going on in your district and ask questions as this process goes on.”

The headline to this article has been corrected.

Contact Katie Nix at 329-7129 or knix@chroniclet.comFollow her on Twitter @KatieHNix.

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