LORAIN — Race was again a point of contention during a packed Lorain School Board meeting Monday night.
Following the cancellation of a special Academic Distress Commission meeting last week and conversations between school board and commission members, the board invited the district’s Academic Distress Commission, CEO David Hardy and Mayor Chase Ritenauer to its meeting Monday to address community members’ concerns. Commission members Steve Cawthon and Diane Conibear-Xander were the only ones from the commission to attend. Hardy did not attend either.
But, similar to other public meetings, accusations of racism came up.
E. Jean Wrice, president of the Lorain NAACP, called school board members “The Three Musketeers,” blaming them for the situation at hand and telling Ritenauer racism was strong in the International City.
“When somebody’s brown and seems to be in leadership, they don’t get respect,” she said. “You say what you want to say to them when you want to say to them and anybody in here who wants to have a problem with the NAACP then you guy’s have problems.”
She added later, “Unless things get turned around and stop ‘Mr. Hardy, Mr. Hardy’ — that man is under the state’s umbrella, not ours. And he, I think, deserves respect. That’s the problem in the city, it just amazes me. All the years when we had Caucasians in positions, nobody says a word against them, they don’t care what they do. You get someone brown, that’s it.”
The board and some community members disagreed, citing the issue was not Hardy’s race, but his lack of transparency — highlighted in recent exchanges between him and the ADC’s newest member Diane Conibear-Xander, who repeatedly has asked him for public information to no avail.
Commission member Steve Cawthon cited that Caucasian superintendents have been publicly criticized through his 28-year tenure with the district, “some have been almost run out of town publicly.”
“If the thought is that, because I’m Caucasian, I don’t get criticized as mayor, I’d be glad to show anybody the emails and the hate mail I get on a daily basis,” he said. “I think the previous comment, it’s unfortunate where this is gone and a lot of this discussion has gone. I think we have to focus on the outcomes. Oftentimes we focus on the people and we get siphoned off into these kinds of discussions.”
School board member Tim Williams addressed Wrice directly, calling her own actions at the school board meeting disrespectful. Williams, an African-American, asked her if he was considered part of the “Three Musketeers,” which she replied he was. He said he was not speaking in regard to the NAACP, but Wrice’s personal actions.
“(At) one stage we would use these things for we respect our elders, well we’re now old enough to die of natural causes,” he said. “So as far as that that I was taught to do, we’re no longer there anymore and if you think you’re going to walk into our board meeting, sit there and be disrespectful … that’s not going to continue to happen, and you can call me a musketeer or whatever you wish. If you think that making your opening statement was respectful or reasonable or appropriate, I would disagree.”
A substitute teacher in Lorain and Elyria, Margo Higginbotham, said if African-Americans had questioned Hardy at his January town hall as others had, “we’d have been on the front (of the) paper.”
“I’m sorry to say that, in this day and time, if it was us acting up, and I’m talking about African-Americans, acting the way that it was acting, we’d have been on the front page of the paper talking about how we are angry and the other things that come out when we speak our mind and we don’t speak logically to people. The first thing that comes out of their mind is we’re angry black people and everything else that goes along with it.”
She went on to say that both sides needed to set their egos aside and think about the children it the district.
“We have two egos in both sides of the building and the bottom line is who cares about the kids, and that goes for Mr. Hardy as well,” she said. “Just because he’s black doesn’t mean I like him too well either.”
A local parent and founding member of It Takes A Village, Barbie Washington, said parents have not been questioning Hardy because he is African-American, but because they want answers he has yet to give.
“I think that us being called racist, our kids being talked about, by prominent people in our community is disgusting and you do not hear anything racial coming from me or It Takes A Village or Lorain Tackles House Bill 70.”
Despite discussions on the racial divide in the city, the majority of attendees came seeking answers. Amy Valdez, a speech-language pathologist in the district, said she attended both the town hall and the Speak Up, Speak Out forum held two days later. She noted the racial comments at the Saturday meeting, but said the real issue is transparency. Quoting one of her friends, she said “Information and accountability does not equal hate.”
Ritenauer addressed the layers of accountability House Bill 70 removes — by giving authority to a majority state-appointed commission, who appoints a CEO with little community input.
He said the school board needs to be a player in the district’s decisions, as they are responsible for levies. He said the room is big enough for everyone: Academic Distress Commission, CEO, school board, etc., to meet.
A retired teacher, LynnDee Gillam, agreed.
“People want answers and it seems like the person who holds the answers is not speaking to the community,” she said. “I truly believe that a lot of this could be handled quickly if the CEO could step up and answer questions.”
After the meeting, Ritenauer said he would continue to stand behind his appointee, Diane Conibear-Xander’s, requests for records and information from Hardy.
“To not get what she’s asked for, to be rebuffed as she has and some of the things that have been said are concerning to me simply because whether you like me or not, whether you like Diane or not, she’s an appointee,” he said. “The law includes the mayor’s office, it includes the appointee, she ought to be treated just like any of the other appointees. If I need to speak out more about it, I will ... And I’ll tell the same things to David (Hardy), too.”
Following a unanimous vote from the school board, Ritenauer said he will be sending a letter to Hardy, the commission and school board requesting a meeting with everyone in the room.
“I come with no agenda other than we need to be focused on the outcomes of what is going on in the district. we need buy in from both, this idea that it’s only the Distress Commission – well, yeah, it’s much of them, but levies and bonds going on the ballot is up to the elected school board and it’s about time the elected school board be involved.”
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