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Lorain school board member threatens 'no' vote on levy

  • Mark-Ballard-Lorain-BOE-cand-jpg

    Lorain school board member Mark Ballard.

    CHRONICLE FILE

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LORAIN — A Lorain school board member said he’s willing to put a renewal on the levy on the ballot for November on two conditions — the resignation of CEO David Hardy and the resignation of Academic Distress Commission Chairman Tony Richardson.

In a letter, board Vice President Mark Ballard said residents have asked him about whether or not the body will place a renewal levy on the ballot, which is expected to raise more than $3 million annually, but with questions swirling about how Hardy is spending taxpayer dollars, it doesn’t seem likely.

“There are so many questions and so few answers,” he said. “But what we do have, and have plenty of it, is a lack of respect from the new leadership in our schools. And a total lack of accountability. And so today I’m going to go against what most people are expecting to hear from me today. I’m going on record to say I will give a November levy my full support. But I need the resignations of our CEO, David Hardy, and Chair of the Academic Distress Commission, Tony Richardson, first.”

Ballard expressed concerns about Hardy, who did not respond to request for comment, hiring an influx of administrators using federal Title I funds typically used for individual or small-group learning focused on improving reading and math.

“To be fair, from what I have seen, I don’t even think David Hardy is qualified to know what he doesn’t know about the basics of running schools in Ohio,” Ballard said. “We have clear evidence of this through the poor decisions he makes in one of the most important aspects of what we do — selecting the right people to run our buildings and educate our children. He is hiring people who, according to the laws of Ohio and the mandates of the Ohio Department of Education, are not qualified and are not licensed for the very positions they now hold.”

One of the new principals Hardy hired, Kejuana Jefferson, to head General Johnnie Wilson Middle School did not have the necessary certifications to be a middle school principal when her hiring was announced. She has since applied for the proper license.

School board President Tony Dimacchia said the entire process so far has been a mess from Hardy’s selection to how the district is operating now, with the actions of State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria and the Ohio Department of Education being “borderline criminal.”

“This is a clear attack on minority, urban school districts, and this CEO, who does not have the qualifications to run any district, he needs to resign,” Dimacchia said. “The commission needs to hold him accountable and terminate him immediately. When that happens, I will gladly make an informed decision on a levy. At this time, I am in full support of Mr. Ballard and his position.”

Board member Bill Sturgill said he still wants things between the board and the administration to come together because when the district was first placed on academic distress because of poor state report cards, the relationship with the Academic Distress Commission wasn’t an adversarial one.

“I’m hoping we can move forward,” he said. “We need the money. We needed it then and I can even see us needing additional money in the future. But we’re used to having some input, and I think that’s what everyone’s miffed about. Do we need the money? I think we do, but I can’t say he’ll be a good steward with our money.”

School board member Tim Williams said the longer the disconnect goes between the board and Hardy, the worse it is getting.

“What you’re hearing is people drawing lines where they didn’t before,” Williams said. “Members of the board are coming to the point where their interest in that kind of dialogue is not nearly what it once was before. For most of us, we’re not in the same place of optimism that we once were.”

The school board has been inviting Hardy to its meetings since he came to the district, but he has not attended. He has told the members they could come to his monthly town hall meetings to ask any questions they might have.

“I don’t think it’s reasonable that there’s been a choice not to communicate with us,” Williams said. “It’s not about who is accountable to whom. It’s clear he doesn’t answer to the board, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any communication.”

Williams said he doesn’t think the board has the necessary three votes to put the levy before voters.

“I’m not as far along as Mark and Tony, but I get closer to where they are every day. It’s not the board’s responsibility to just put it on there. We have to work with the community to pass it. What I’ve heard is this levy is not in a good position for passage.”

School board member Yvonne Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.

Ballard said the school board has to make public records requests for the most basic things such as financial information, making Hardy’s statements that he’s open and transparent appear false.

Ballard also drew connections between members of the Academic Distress Commission, the five-member body tasked with hiring Hardy per the stipulations of state House Bill 70. Three of the members were appointed by the state superintendent, one was appointed by Mayor Chase Ritenauer and the final was appointed by the school board.

Ballard said the commission isn’t speaking up about Hardy’s conduct because its chairman, Tony Richardson, works as a project officer for the Nord Family Foundation. John Mullaney, the head of the Nord Family Foundation, has written about school choice for the Plain Dealer.

House Bill 70 allows for the CEO of a school district under Academic Distress to turn “failing” buildings into charter schools after his or her second year in power. There is no standard in the law outlining what qualifies a building to be failing.

The law has been criticized by numerous local officials, as well as those in the state legislature, as being an avenue to get rid of public schools in favor of charters.

Neither Richardson nor Mullaney responded to requests for comment.

Ballard also said Ritenauer’s appointee, John Monteleone, is leaving his post as the assistant superintendent the Oberlin school district to become the superintendent of Citizens Academy, which is part of Breakthrough Schools, a series of charter schools in the Cleveland area.

According to the Nord Family Foundation’s website, the organization gave “Friends of Breakthrough Schools” $150,000 in operational grants in 2016.

Monteleone said it may seem that there’s a conflict of interest with his future employer to people looking on the outside, but that notion is a false one.

“I can see somebody grasping at straws to say that was a conflict of interest,” he said.

Monteleone said the dynamics between Breakthrough Schools, Friends of Breakthrough and Citizens Academy must be understood before making such an assumption and, if they’re not, accusations made connecting them to conflicts of interests lose their validity.

He also said the funding is trivial when it’s considered that there are multiple funding sources for every public and private school district.

Ritenauer said he has not heard of any legal issue with Monteleone being on the commission and working for Breakthrough Schools as many other local entities receive funding from the Nord Family Foundation, including the Lorain school district.

“I have known John to be a man of integrity with a love for the Lorain City Schools,” he said. “If a specific legal problem or concern is brought to my attention, I will review it. If for some reason it becomes a distraction to his work, John and I will discuss it and determine the best path forward.”

Ritenauer also said the current standoff between the administration and the school board marks the primary flaw of House Bill 70.

“A CEO with total power other than ability to put a levy on the ballot and a school board with no power other than the ability to put a levy on the ballot?” he said. “A power struggle ensues. What could go wrong? Exactly what we are seeing.”

At the end of his letter, Ballard doubled down on what it would take for him to put a levy before the voters of Lorain.

“I’ll put that renewal levy on the ballot and do all I can to ensure it passes,” he said. “Our future seems to depend on it. But I’ll need those resignations from David Hardy and Tony Richardson before doing so.”

Reporter Bruce Walton contributed to this story. Contact Katie Nix at 329-7129 or knix@chroniclet.com. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @KatieHNix.


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