Academic Distress Commissions and state takeovers need to change, according to suggestions by the state superintendent.
State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria’s report does not state that state takeovers of school districts should not happen, but outlines the challenges current implementation faces, and suggests giving underperforming districts supports sooner, and provide avenues for districts to maintain some local control if a takeover is deemed necessary.
The report, sent to legislators Friday and shared with The Chronicle-Telegram, comes more than a month ahead of its May 1 deadline outlined in Ohio Revised Code. DeMaria was required to review all policies and procedures regarding academic distress commissions and provide recommendations for improvement.
The report comes as two House bills and one Senate bill have been introduced to change, repeal or suspend state takeovers as outlined currently under House Bill 70.
Currently, an academic distress commission is established when a district has received an overall F on its state report card for three years in a row. DeMaria’s report acknowledges three years is not long enough for a district to improve and that an overall F may “mask meaningful academic improvement.” He recommends when a district receives its first overall F, it should be designated as “substantial and intensive support’ status and the state should review the district and its leadership, creating a plan to turn its trajectory around before falling under House Bill 70.
The report suggests an improvement plan should be created with the current school board and superintendent, but later it outlines if a district continues to fail, its local leadership can still be limited, suspended or removed in its entirety in an attempt to improve district outcomes.
“In the case of continued underperformance, the state should progressively exert increasing authority beginning with approving or rescinding local board and leadership actions and, as a last resort, pursuing a more significant change in governance.”
That “more significant change in governance” would come after potential supports to local leadership did not improve, the report suggests. It suggests several advisory groups be implemented to help struggling districts, including a quality education advisory group, school board support advisory group, community support coordinating group and resource utilization advisory group. Each advisory group would provide support and feedback to respective administrators or school board members and be comprised of peers recommended by their respective state association.
For example, the school board support group would be comprised of current and former school board members from other districts recommended by the Ohio School Boards Association. It would help the local board develop effective leadership and improve outcomes for students.
The report goes on to recommend three different options for struggling districts, rather than the one-size-fits-all approach currently in place. Options include facilitators to support changes made in the district; supervisory options where in consultation with the local school board, the state superintendent would select an “improvement supervisor” for the district; or options to change who controls the district.
Supervisory options would be in some ways similar to current legislation, as an “improvement supervisor” could suspend actions of the board or superintendent when those are not “consistent with the improvement plan or the Expectations and supports Agreement” the district has made with the state.
Directive options could put the district under Mayoral control, implement a school director — appointed in consultation with the district superintendent — or allow schools to be considered for independent management by a nonprofit. The report notes those schools would not be community schools; the contract decision would be made by the state but the school would remain part of its original district.
A CEO could also still be implemented, though under the recommendation there would be no commission and all responsibility of the district would be with the state superintendent and their appointed leader of the district. Currently, a school district’s CEO is appointed by the commission, which is a majority state-appointed board of five members.
Restructuring the commission and CEO
DeMaria recommends changing the academic distress commission to an “education improvement supervision commission” and change its membership and responsibilities.
The report recommends commission members be peer professionals nominated by their respective state associations, and allow more time to appoint them. The new commission would be made of: a current school superintendent; a member of a local board of education that is not the school board in distress; a current district treasurer; a representative from the Ohio Department of Education; and a principal.
The commission would approve or require changes in: educational improvement plans developed by the school board; the budget; and be afforded additional managerial, operational and educational authority — including the ability to appoint a CEO.
It recommends giving the commission the ability to put levies on the ballot. Currently, that is the only power given to the locally elected school board. He also states there should be clarification on defining academic distress commissions as a “body politic,” requiring it to comply with sunshine, public records and other ethics laws.
Under current policy, the district’s CEO is prescribed almost complete control over the struggling district they are appointed to run. DeMaria suggests if a CEO is put in place, there should be local input in the selection.
“Successful leadership, however, rarely operates in a top-down manner,” DeMaria wrote. “Meaningful improvement relies on a collective commitment to change by leadership, management, staff and community and the active participation in the design and implementation of change by key stakeholders — especially teachers and school staff.”
Later in the report, DeMaria discusses progressively increasing authority prescribed to the CEO and commission.
Currently, the district’s CEO is given increasing levels of power after years one through five of a district under state takeover. Demaria questions the structre’s practicality, as it is unlikely that a district would rise from an overall F to a C after just its first year under state takeover. He also states suspension of collective bargaining agreements — which a CEO is able to do after year two now — does not foster shared responsibility and can cause division and mistrust.
He suggests some powers should be implemented earlier, while removing the section allowing the local mayor reappoint the school board in year four — as another option for mayoral control is already outlined.
DeMaria concludes that improving underperforming schools is “extremely challenging and difficult work,” something that has been highly variable across the country.
“More details will be necessary to flesh out many of the concepts presented,” he wrote. “What is important is that stakeholders engage in honest and open debate toward a workable and meaningful approach that is in the best interest of students and communities.”
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