LORAIN — After four years, school officials said goodbye to the current Academic Distress Commission on Friday afternoon at its final meeting as space is made for a new one that will control the district’s fate.
“There are some challenges that we need to continue to work on, but I think this commission was an excellent thing that held people accountable in new ways,” commission member Henry Patterson said. “There was a sense of urgency. The role of a commission isn’t to look at the positives.”
The commission will remain until March 7, when new appointments are made — three from state Superintendent Paolo DeMaria, one from Lorain school board President Tim Williams and one from Mayor Chase Ritenauer.
Not all of the commission members have been around since it was formed in 2013 as a way to improve the district’s poor test scores and state report card grades, but Patterson said he still felt the group did great work, even if it didn’t meet all the goals for a turnaround.
“We were supposed to look beneath and see all of the warts and think, ‘What can we do about that?’” he said. “There is great work going on here, and I didn’t think it would be possible to meet the state standards in four years, and unless something changes, I think that’ll be the case in the next four years. It takes time.”
Since the district’s scores did not improve in the allotted four years, it’s headed for a new commission that will select a CEO, who will have the full powers of a superintendent and most of the duties of an elected school board.
“We were a district in need, and we can’t deny our test scores aren’t where they need to be and still aren’t,” district Superintendent Jeff Graham said. “The foundation for the new commission coming in will benefit from their leadership and insight. If I have a leadership role in this district moving forward, I’d like to continue to work with them because the students in Lorain are a lot better off than they were four years ago.”
Graham, who came to the district in 2015 and is only a year and a half into a three-year contract, stands to lose his job as part of the takeover, unless Ritenauer’s opinion prevails and Graham is appointed CEO.
Graham has said he would be interested in serving the district in that capacity but with the CEO’s ability to turn failing buildings into charter schools, it’s not something he’s comfortable with.
“If that’s something the state wants to see happen, it’s not something I can be a part of,” he has said.
Lorain school board Vice President Tony DiMacchia said he felt the distress commission helped to mend some broken fences while also helping the district make progress by being more critical in some areas and recognizing worth in others.
“I think we’ve made some great progress and healed some of the damaging relationships with the state of Ohio,” he said. “Because of their help, we’ve been able to expose some of the great things we’ve done. We worked well together with them.”
Williams said he thought the commission pointed the district in the right direction, citing the construction of the new high school, which opened last fall.
“The presence of the commission excelled the great work we’re doing,” he said. “The extra sets of eyes contributed significantly to our improvement, and the work they’ve done is going to continue into the next phase of the process. I don’t think they were given the proper credit.”
Commissioner chairman Bill Zelei said the experience was “bittersweet” because he wanted to see results sooner.
“I don’t want it five years from now, because with every year that goes by, there’s one more kid that didn’t graduate, one more kid that struggled making it from kindergarten to first grade,” he said. “I don’t feel like we were as successful as we could have been, but four years isn’t a very long time to change the culture in a community while life is changing faster than we can.”
Once the group disbands, DeMaria, Williams and Ritenauer have 30 days to make their selections for the commission. From there, the commission has 60 days to select a CEO.
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