The Ohio Senate Education Committee heard hours of testimony from dozens of Lorain, Youngstown, East Cleveland and other districts’ residents Wednesday evening.
Stretching roughly eight hours long, testimony defended and blasted the state’s current takeover model. More than 50 constituents from Lorain packed the Senate’s finance committee room, including a busload of more than 30 community members and teachers chartered by Citizens for Lorain Schools, and a number of students from the district. Members of the school board, previous and current academic distress commissions, district administrators — including CEO David Hardy — and others submitted testimony and sat through speeches by representatives of Toledo, Canton, North College Hill and Dayton school districts.
Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, chair of the Education Committee — who held the same position when House Bill 70 was passed in 2015 — said the controversial legislation did not pay attention to individual needs of struggling districts, or the partnership between the community and district leadership.
In the midst of Lorain Board of Education President Mark Ballard’s testimony, Sen. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, spoke in support of returning control back to the locally elected school board.
“Clearly Lorain is very passionate,” he said. “They care a lot, and I think if we give control back I think they’re in good hands.”
That Lorain passion came through on both sides of the testimony — starting with Ballard. He noted under the previous academic distress commission the Ohio Department of Education touted Lorain as a shining example, having brought in wraparound services and stemmed a bleed of more than 200 students lost to open enrollment every year, but under the CEO those gains have been lost.
He said the board would have worked with Hardy to create a new plan and keep the district moving forward, but the CEO has refused to attend board meetings and requires officials to submit public records to gain any insight into the district.
Later in the evening, Hardy said collaboration is key to move forward, but the challenge is getting people to collaborate. During his testimony, Hardy said he has not spoken to the school board because he “refuses to be a part of corruption.”
“The calls for a lack of communication (were) no more than a call for control from a small group of individuals that lacked the transparency that landed our community in academic distress in the first place,” Hardy told the committee.
Manning noted corruption is a serious accusation — implying there is illegal activity — and asked if the relationship is something the CEO thinks could be repaired.
Hardy said he was instantly rejected by the school board, despite attempts to open lines of communication. He said many in the city are uninformed and disenfranchised, not knowing they are under academic distress. He blamed the political system in Lorain, stating he has a chart of roughly 10 people who run the city. He suggested that other community members, rather than politicians, be put in charge to help turn the district around.
School Board Vice President Tony Dimacchia — who served as the board’s president when Hardy became CEO — said Hardy has not met with him since shortly after he came to the city, both lunch meetings. Dimacchia said Hardy wanted to the board’s role to be one where it pushed his policies and message out to the community, but gave little input.
Ballard, the current board president, said the last time he spoke with Hardy was in February, before Randall Sampson was appointed to Lorain’s Academic Distress Commission.
Other testimony included support for Hardy from members of the Lorain NAACP, Lorain Club of Negro Business and Professional Women Inc., community activist Kyriece Brooks and General Johnnie Wilson Middle School Principal Kejuana Jefferson. Jefferson was one of the turnaround building principals hired by Hardy ahead of the 2018-19 school year.
Their testimony said they fear what happens if the district is turned back over to the local school board, as they have just started to see positive change under Hardy. They each called for Hardy and the current academic distress model to be given the time to undo problems the district has grappled with for decades.
On the other side, teachers and community members pointed out the stress and trauma brought on by House Bill 70 and Hardy’s leadership. Teachers pointed to a hemorrhaging of students from their classes, a lack of Title I teachers or programming to help students succeed. Alexis Hayden, grievance chair for the Lorain Education Association, said the number of grievances filed has jumped from an average of 18 to 21 a year to 52 this year.
Dan Falk, a teacher at General Johnnie Wilson Middle School, told the committee how his recent nonrenewal affected his family. He said under Jeff Graham, the district’s superintendent before Hardy, there was more support for English-as-a-second-language students, but those programs have been stripped under the current administration.
In defense of House Bill 154
Rep. Joe Miller, D-Amherst, spoke in defense of the language in the biennial state budget — taken from his and Freeport Rep. Don Jones’ House Bill 154. The legislation would repeal House Bill 70 and replace it with building-level support for struggling districts.
Under the current budget language, a district has four years to improve its test scores under a locally created improvement plan. Senators expressed concern about what happens if a building or district does not raise its state report card scores in the time allotted. Miller said if districts are not in compliance, the Ohio Department of Education would have to determine what happens moving forward. Lehner disagreed, stating ODE does not normally make policy, but looks to the legislation to make those decisions.
“There’s unfinished work, and I’m sure this body will be willing to have those discussions,” Lehner said.
Youngstown CEO Krish Mohip was the last to testify to the committee. Mohip, on his way out as CEO, went on family and medical leave May 8 through the end of his contract July 31. He said his district has been failing for the past 20 years, but House Bill 70 has only been in place for four years.
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