LORAIN — The local presence is strong on Lorain Schools’ new Academic Distress Commission, which had the names of its members released Thursday afternoon.
Four people from Lorain County have been selected to serve on the commission, with representatives from local nonprofits as well as neighboring school districts.
“Lorain is a proud community,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria, who had to select three people to serve on the commission, said in a statement. “The Academic Distress Commission will go about its work valuing all that is taking place and building on the progress being made with the goal that all students succeed. We are grateful to these new commission members for their expertise and willingness to support the goal of a high-quality education system in Lorain.”
District Superintendent Jeff Graham said he’s pleased with the “high-caliber” individuals on the commission and how they present “not only academic excellence” but also are “graduates of the school system and deeply knowledgeable of our district.”
“I have incredible respect for the people who have been selected and I feel like they took these positions, which are all on a volunteer basis, for the right reasons, and I’m really impressed,” Graham said.
Graham said Thursday that he had several closed-door sessions with staff and faculty for them to ask questions or express concerns about the commission picks, but the responses weren’t negative.
“I think it was an overwhelming sigh of relief,” he said. “There were a lot big smiles, I think, because these people on the commission are people who know us and know our district. There’s one person who isn’t from Lorain County, and I think her background is still going to be of huge value to us.”
One of DeMaria’s picks, Tony Richardson, a former Lorain councilman who is a program officer at the Amherst-based Nord Family Foundation, said he’s excited about shaping the future of his home school district.
“I’m a resident of the city, and I’m a graduate of Lorain City Schools as well,” he said. “When I was presented with the opportunity to be a part of this process, it wasn’t something I could shy away from.”
The commission, which will be tasked with appointing a CEO in the next 60 days as part of the provision under state House Bill 70, which was passed in 2015 and requires a district that’s been under academic distress for four years to switch to a CEO format.
Lorain Schools was placed under academic distress in 2013 as a result of low test scores and poor state report card scores. At the time, a commission was appointed to help guide the district in the right direction, but it was unsuccessful. On March 7, that commission was disbanded to make way for the new one.
Once the new commission has appointed a CEO, he or she must then put together a strategic plan to help the district improve and climb out of academic distress.
Other commission members
According to House Bill 70, only one of DeMaria’s picks had to live in Lorain County, but his second pick also lives in the county. Elyria-based Stocker Foundation Executive Director Patricia O’Brien lives in Amherst.
O’Brien, who is a graduate of Lorain Schools, said she is ready to get to work with the other members of the commission.
“Improving educational outcomes for all of Lorain’s students is what’s most important to me and others involved,” she said.
The Stocker Foundation has a history of working with Lorain Schools, in 2014 having given a five-year, $1.25 million grant that allowed 40 children to attend preschool at Larkmoor Elementary School.
DeMaria’s third pick is University of Toledo Assistant Vice President of Student Success and Inclusion Michele Soliz.
Soliz, who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Toledo and focused on Latino student baccalaureate completion rates and student engagement, said she’s looking forward to getting started.
“I was approached to be on the commission and with my background in multicultural education and the fact that Lorain is a very diverse district, I was very interested in helping,” she said. “I’m wanting to go into this with an open mind and am hoping to see how the schools work.”
One of DeMaria’s picks will be selected to be the chairperson of the committee at a later date, district spokeswoman Erin Gadd said.
Gadd said the commission’s meetings will be open to the public, but since a chairperson hadn’t been selected as of Thursday, the meeting schedule hasn’t been set.
Lorain Schools Board of Education President Timothy Williams also received a pick for the commission. His choice, Dorinda Hall, is a teacher in the district, a requirement of House Bill 70. She works as an academic instructional coach primarily at Stevan Dohanos Elementary School.
“We had somewhere between 17 and 20 people express interest in this position, and Ms. Hall just really stood out,” he said. “She’s a person of integrity and is an exceptional educator. It’s not that the other people don’t fit that. It was just she stood out. It wasn’t too small of a field, it was actually really big.”
Williams said he spoke with the four other board members about Hall’s appointment and they agreed she was a good fit for the commission.
“I’m excited we’ve hit this hurdle and are moving forward in the process,” he said. “These appointments make it clear that the state understands how important the community is in this process. The mayor has made that clear also. Between him and the state superintendent, their leadership has been an integral part in this process.”
Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer’s pick was required to be someone who lives in the city of Lorain. The mayor, however, said he also was seeking a resident who lived within the boundaries of Lorain Schools.
His choice, John Monteleone, is a former Lorain Schools principal who now serves as the assistant superintendent in Oberlin. Monteleone said he approached the mayor about joining the commission because he’s been involved with Lorain Schools his entire life.
“I have a vested interest in this community, the children and the teachers, who are so dedicated,” he said. “This district is near and dear to my heart and I’ve seen it be very unstable before, but under the old commission and Dr. Graham’s leadership I’ve seen it become more stable. I want to continue that.”
Choosing the CEO
Ritenauer said during his State of the City address in February he’d like to see Graham become CEO, something he stood by Thursday.
“That’s still where I’m at, but I think now that the commission has been seated, it’s time to let them do their job,” Ritenauer said. “I think the fact that four of the five appointees were local, and the state selected two local people, is a huge plus here and shows it’s going to be a collaborative process.”
Because the newly appointed CEO would have the full powers of a superintendent and most of the school board’s authority, he or she would be able to make any hiring or firing decisions regarding the staff, leaving Graham — who will have one year left on his contract after this school year — and other administrators in a precarious position.
According to House Bill 70, after two years, the CEO also would have the power to close failing schools or transition them into charter schools, something Graham said would stop him from becoming CEO.
“If that’s the expectation of this person, I couldn’t do it,” he said “If the commission feels like I’m the right fit, then I would love to stay in Lorain. I would love to stay in Lorain for as long as I’m able to as long as it’s the right fit for me and for the district.”
Krish Mohip is the CEO for Youngstown Schools, the only other district in the state under the influence of House Bill 70. Mohip said his strategic plan for the district doesn’t include plans for converting current buildings into charter schools.
When asked how the charter school aspect would fit into his decision-making, Richardson said he’s not necessarily concerned with the “semantics of school models” as long as the district’s schools are “high-performing.”
“I just want to see a quality school district,” he said. “For me that means that the CEO is a listener who has experience dealing with distressed school districts, not just academically but economically as well.”
Soliz said when it comes to the CEO, she’s looking for someone who is committed to education and has stronger leadership skills and responsibility.
Richardson said above all else, he’d like to see a transparent commission and process moving forward.
“I want to build on the work of the former academic distress commission but also engage the district’s students, families, teachers, administrators and members of the community,” Richardson said. “And I think transparency is a major part of that. I think what we all want here is quality schools, and it’s up to all of us to figure out what that looks like.”
Graham will host open-door sessions with the community to further discuss the effect the commission, the CEO and the transition might have on the community. The next round of sessions will be 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesday in his office at 2600 Ashland Ave. and 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the Lorain Learning Center at the City Center, 201 W. Erie Ave.
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