LORAIN — Four of the five finalists for the new head of the Lorain school district have a connection to the co-founder of the search firm that helped select the candidates.
The five finalists for the schools’ CEO position were chosen from 37 applicants, including the district’s current Superintendent Jeff Graham.
Commission Chairman Tony Richardson said Atlantic Research Partners, which was co-founded by Joseph Wise, narrowed the field of candidates rather than the commission itself.
Atlantic Research Partners President Jim Hager, who has been present in all of the commission’s interviews with finalists this week, denied a public records request for the other 32 applications, saying as a private firm, it is not subject to release them.
The finalists are:
- Vilicia Cade, senior director of secondary curriculum and professional development for Christina school district in Wilmington, Del.
- David Hardy, deputy superintendent of academics for St. Louis Public Schools, St. Louis.
- James Henderson, former associate superintendent for academic support for St. Louis Public Schools, St. Louis.
- Lloyd Martin, former superintendent of schools Academy for Urban Scholars, Columbus.
- Eric Thomas, chief support officer for University of Virginia Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education, Charlottesville, Va.
Cade serves as the senior director of secondary curriculum and professional development in the Christina School District in Wilmington, Del., the largest school district in the state. She has been in this position since 2009.
Before her arrival, Wise was superintendent of that district from 2003 to 2005. During that time frame, Cade was employed both with the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools as the director of curriculum and instruction.
After leaving Christina, Wise headed to Duval County Schools in Jacksonville, Fla., his home state, where he served as superintendent from 2005 to 2007.
According to a 2007 story from the Florida Times-Union, Wise was fired in a 6-1 vote by the Duval County school board after “not communicating or acting in good faith with board members during budget discussions.”
After Wise was fired, he launched Atlantic Research Partners, the firm hired for $25,000 last month by the Lorain Academic Distress Commission to conduct a search for the district’s CEO.
The Lorain district is seeking a CEO, whom the state is expected to pay an annual salary of $150,000 to $250,000 in comparison to Graham’s $156,200, after failing test scores and poor state report card grades caused it to be classified by the state as under academic distress in 2013.
State House Bill 70, passed in 2015, says that if a district is in academic distress and under the supervision of an academic distress commission for four years, the old commission will be disbanded and a new one will be appointed to hire a CEO.
In 2014, the Lorain school district received two districtwide reviews from the Ohio Department of Education because they were under academic distress — one in May and one in November.
According to the reviews, CEO finalist Thomas was a member of both review teams and continues to serve as a consultant for the department on academic distress commissions. He is the only candidate of the five with no direct professional ties to Wise.
Another candidate, Martin, was working at the Duval County Schools while Wise was there, too. Martin was employed in various roles from 2003 to 2006.
Martin left Duval County Schools to become superintendent of Mansfield Schools in Ohio, where in 2009 he was charged with complicity after, according to a story by Channel 10 in Columbus, he was accused of obstructing a police investigation of a sixth-grade teacher who had inappropriate conversations about sex with students.
The charges were dropped that same year, according to court records.
After leaving Mansfield in 2010, Martin began working with Wise again as a senior research adviser for Atlantic Research Partners in St. Augustine, Fla., where he stayed until 2012.
In 2016, Lorain CEO finalist Hardy, who works as the deputy superintendent of academics for the St. Louis Public Schools, attended the National Superintendents Academy, a 10-day program that bills itself as growing the next generation of education leadership.
Atlantic Research Partners puts on the academy and, according to a story from the Vindicator in Youngstown, is the latest iteration of a company called The SUPES Academy.
According to the Vindicator article, Atlantic Research Partners acquired parts of SUPES in 2015 after it was embroiled in a kickback scandal that sent former owners Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, along with former Chicago Schools CEO and SUPES consultant Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who used to lead the Cleveland Schools, to prison.
The final candidate, Henderson, attended SUPES in 2011.
The only other district in Ohio to have fallen under the provisions of House Bill 70 and see a CEO takeover is Youngstown, where Krish Mohip became CEO in the summer of 2016.
Mohip was an administrator in the Chicago school district when the scandal involving SUPES and Byrd-Bennett broke and, earlier this year, he hired Atlantic Research Partners to search for principals at a price tag of $12,500.
While Graham and school board President Tim Williams said they had no comment, school board member Mark Ballard said in light of the information, he’d like to see the commission pump the brakes.
“Maybe we can find someone to take the position on an interim basis,” he said. “But this all feels very rushed, and while I went to the candidates’ night on Tuesday and all of the finalists seemed very nice, it would be a disservice to hand the keys over to someone we don’t know.”
Ballard said he was curious how the commission decided on this particular firm and so far is seeing a lot of disadvantages to the selection process.
However, school board member Jim Smith said he’s very satisfied with the process so far.
“I don’t see a problem,” Smith said.
Board member Tony Dimacchia said he wasn’t surprised by the finalists’ connections to Atlantic Research Partners, and stood by comments he made at Monday night’s joint meeting with the school board and Academic Distress Commission that he didn’t have faith in the process.
“I still think it’s been unethical, and really, it’s a sham and a joke,” Dimacchia said. “Considering it’s one of the most important decisions our district has ever seen, I’m disappointed the commission handed it off to the search firm.”
Dimacchia questioned if the firm, whose $25,000 fee was fronted by the district which will in turn be repaid by the state, was vetted and if the candidates were as well.
“This just should be about what’s in the best interest for the people of Lorain, and I think that needs to be the biggest priority,” he said.
Richardson, along with Atlantic Research Partners, did not return requests for comment on this story.
The Academic Distress Commission is having a special meeting at 5 p.m. Monday in the media center in Building A of Lorain High School, 2600 Ashland Ave., to discuss hiring a CEO, a day before the state’s deadline.
The Lorain Board of Education will have an emergency meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the media center of the high school “for the purpose of changing the executive seats of the Board of Education; changing the board’s appointment to the Academic Distress Commission; granting the authority to the Treasurer to retain legal counsel on behalf of the Lorain City School Board of Education; and Personnel matters.”
Williams declined to comment on the meeting agenda.
This story has been edited to reflect the following correction: The Lorain school board will meet at 5:30 p.m. today.
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