LORAIN — The dominant message from Speak Up and Speak Out on Saturday is that whatever the city needs or wants — such as better schools, new roads, or less crime and violence — residents will have to do the work.
The 17th annual Speak Up and Speak Out two-hour town hall meeting at City Hall was organized by the Lorain Club of Negro Business and Professional Women in conjunction with the Lorain County section of the National Council of Negro Women and the Lorain NAACP.
Mayor Chase Ritenauer, Lorain Schools Superintendent Jeffrey Graham and police Capt. Roger Watkins answered questions submitted anonymously by people in the audience.
Question topics included taxes, street improvements, diversity in school staff and the police force, the spike in homicides and the appointment of a CEO for the schools.
Lorain Schools, which is facing a state takeover, will have a change in its administrative structure after someone is appointed as CEO in an effort to boost poor test scores.
Ritenauer said he will do his best to minimize the impact outside control will have on the district.
“My priority is to retain as much local control as possible,” he said. “I don’t want to see good, capable teachers and administrators looking elsewhere and leaving our school district. We need to have as much local control as possible on that distress commission.”
An Academic Distress Commission will be formed in March with three members picked by the state schools superintendent, one by the school board president and one by the mayor. The distress commission then will choose a CEO for the district who could usurp all of the school board’s power except for the ability to put a levy on the ballot.
Councilwoman Mary Springowski, D-at large, who attended the event, said parents should be involved in the process.
“Who knows what those children need better than their parents? We need to look at what the parents are saying because we do have involved parents who are very concerned about what’s happened to these children’s education,” Springowski said.
It is possible, too, Graham said, that the CEO could after two years make any school in the city a charter school.
“How do I feel? Some are done very well,” Graham said. “I’ve seen excellent charter schools, but some are not, in my opinion. There’s a wide range of quality.”
Some questions centered on the police department. One asked whether officers would get body cameras. Watkins said to do so would be expensive and could be accomplished only with the help of a grant.
Others asked questions about heroin overdoses. Lorain County was part of a state pilot program allowing emergency personnel to administer naloxone to counteract an overdose, a practice that has been expanded statewide.
“We’ve saved high school children, mothers, fathers — it’s not only effective, I believe it’s very necessary,” Watkins said.
He praised community members for their help fighting crime and drugs, and said it’s their help that led to the capture of nearly all of the homicide suspects last year.
Watkins could not point to a single reason for the increase in homicides, with a jump from zero in 2015 to 11 in 2016. He said he expects gun violence to increase this year as the city had its first homicide of 2017 on Jan. 3.
“Each one of these were different,” Watkins said. “There were drug-related homicides, one or two were just anger homicides. It’s really hard to predict that spike. Not everyone was a homicide by firearm. I’m not exactly sure why there would be a spike.”
Ritenauer spoke about the need to upgrade the city’s aging infrastructure, which he said is contributing to the environmental degradation of Lorain’s lakefront.
He said he’s hoping to keep a better list of blighted properties and to come up with funds to redo some of the federal roads in the county, for which the city must chip in 20 percent of the cost.
Ritenauer stressed that any improvements would have to be made with local taxpayer money. He said not to expect much, if anything, from the state when it comes to the roads, garbage collection, new police cars and aging pipes.
“The governor has talked about recession and the need to scale back,” Ritenauer said. “Counties are worried that this is similar to the talks in 2011 that cut state funding in half. These are cuts we have yet to recover from in the city of Lorain.
“The bottom line is what has happened over the last 5,
6 years is cities have been absolutely gutted,” he continued. “(The state) is sitting on $2 billion in a rainy day fund while all of us have to struggle and figure it out.”
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