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School boards association gives failing marks to bill that could prompt state takeover in Lorain

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The Ohio School Board Association’s grade is in for state House Bill 70, the legislation that will implement a CEO takeover for the Lorain school district in the coming months.

In its semi-annual journal from December, the association’s director of legislative services Damon Asbury gave the legislation, which was passed in 2015, an F and said it is “perhaps the worst example of complete disregard for the legislative process.”

Asbury continued to say the General Assembly gave no notice about the portion of the bill that allows for a CEO takeover known as the “Youngstown plan” after the school district where it first was implemented, and it allowed no opportunity for opposition testimony.

“No one from the opposition was able to even comment on this,” he said in an interview Friday. “No one notified any of the school boards, especially Youngstown or Lorain, who were going to be affected first. They acted without due diligence, and there’s going to be serious consequences for these districts.”

Asbury said he understands some districts need an intervention but when there’s a faulty procedure involved — the bill wasn’t introduced with the CEO amendment, which was added and passed in a 12-hour span — there’s going to be faulty results.

“Never mind the fact that it takes away the power of a local school board,” Asbury said. “In Youngstown, it looks like the board is really struggling with how little impact they have in the district.”

Youngstown school district CEO Krish Mohip admitted the transition in Youngstown was rough, especially when it came to the school board, who lost all governing control with the exception of putting levies and bond issues on the ballot.

“But we’re working well now and they have input in a lot of the decisions that need to be made; but I can make them still without having to wait for the outright approval from the board, which can take some time if the meetings are too far apart,” he said. “It’s a little more agile, a little more expedited.”

Mohip also said there was some politicizing on the Youngstown school board, where things that made educational sense came across members’ desks but weren’t approved because of personal feelings.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of organization between members, but it doesn’t seem that way in Lorain,” he said.

Youngstown Academic Distress Commission Chairman Brian Benyo also said he feels as though a strong school board will help aid in the transition, something the Youngstown district didn’t have.

“Locally, the impact of a dysfunctional board is a reason we had to take on this model,” he said. “You need real leadership, and when the school board is dysfunctional it can be a real detriment. But I think we’re getting on the right track now, and I don’t see that problem in Lorain.”

Lorain school board member Jim Smith said that while he can’t speak for his fellow board members, he has concerns about HB 70 being a civil rights violation and he has reached out to the ACLU.

“In my capacity as a school district resident and not as a board member, I reached out to them via email a couple of weeks ago but haven’t heard back,” he said. “I don’t want to challenge the state’s right to set academic standards, but I am questioning if they can just override a vote of the people by essentially cutting off the board’s authority.”

In taking power from the school board, the CEO will have the ability to hire and fire as he sees fit, something school district spokeswoman Denise Dick said hasn’t happened in Youngstown.

State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria said he wants to be a calming voice during this transition because the intent isn’t to wipe out everyone in the Lorain district’s leadership roles.

“I really want to calm people down,” he said. “Someone isn’t going to come in and make all of your buildings charter schools and get rid of all the teachers and administrators. That makes no sense. It’s harder to run a system that way and a smart CEO would want to keep these people around him because they know the district, what progress has been made and what the direction is going forward.”

Another concern moving forward is the status of administrators in the district who stand to lose their positions at the whim of a CEO.

“There’s a lot of anxiety because there are still a lot of unanswered questions as we move forward,” Lorain Superintendent Jeff Graham said. “People come to me and want to know if they can get a letter of recommendation or put me down as a reference because they’re not sure if they’re going to have jobs and they have families to feed.”

In the second year of a CEO takeover, he or she is able to take any failing school and either close it or turn it into a charter school, something DeMaria said he doesn’t see for Lorain.

“Every community in Ohio has students educated in the traditional district model,” he said about one of the major concerns facing the Lorain district as it prepares for transition. “In Youngstown the focal point has been traditional, high-quality schools.”

Mohip said his strategic plan for the district, which he is stipulated to have according to HB 70, doesn’t include plans for converting current buildings into charter schools. Read the Youngstown strategic plan HERE.

“I truly believe in a public education and that we have to be part of the solution to make that work,” he said. “I want to transform schools to be better, but I’m not committed to charter schools. They’re absent from the equation here and I didn’t include them in my strategic plan for the district.”

Graham said in the coming weeks he hopes to have open-door sessions about HB 70 and the changes that are coming to the district as the current Academic Distress Commission disbands March 7 and a new five-member commission is formed in order to select a CEO.

“There are a lot of misconceptions out there as to what’s going to happen with HB 70, and we want to share the facts,” he said. “We want to get out into the communities in places that are easier to get to like churches, Lorain County Community College and libraries.”

Graham said there are several gaps in the community’s knowledge when it comes to the legislation’s effects and the district wants to inform residents.

“We’ll know a lot more, too, on March 7 and Academic Distress Commission appointments start happening,” he said. “The state has done a great job of getting to know our district and I think they understand that while the process leading up to getting a CEO has to be consistent, there also has to be some flexibility when it comes to those steps that come after.”

DeMaria gets three appointments on the new commission, only one of which has to be a resident of Lorain County. DeMaria also will get to select the new chairperson.

Lorain school board president Tim Williams also will get a pick who has to be a teacher in the district with Mayor Chase Ritenauer getting the final pick — a Lorain resident.

Ritenauer has said his pick will live in the school district.

Asbury said he feels as thought the Lorain district is open to working with the state, which Graham has said himself, and he hopes things go well for the district.

“Things like this don’t turn around quickly,” Ashbury said. “And when that happens the whole community needs to stick together. A split of support in the community makes it that much harder.”

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




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