LORAIN — Lorain Schools has two years to get its academic numbers up, or it will face the fallout of a new system state legislators have crafted as a way to handle failures in struggling districts.
The so-called “Youngstown Plan” is not Youngstown-centric in the way legislation is currently written. Therefore, Lorain — the only district besides Youngstown under academic takeover by the state — is getting a two-year window to improve before it will be affected by the soon-to-be-signed bill, said John Charlton, spokesman for the Department of Education.
The need for immediate action is more so for Youngstown Schools, which has been under academic takeover longer and has seen little progress.
“Lorain is the only district getting this exemption because it’s been with an academic distress commission for one year,” Charlton said. “Youngstown has seen no improvement, which is why this is being pushed there.”
Charlton stressed Lorain has two years to show improvement and get out of academic takeover before its academic distress commission is disbanded, a new commission is appointed and a state-paid CEO appointed by that new commission is put in place to run the district.
A district gets placed in academic takeover by having failing grades on state report cards for three consecutive years. It gets out by earning an overall “C” on the state report card and coming up with a clear academic transition plan.
Lorain is on its way, said board President Tony Dimacchia.
“I don’t think the legislation is designed for a district like Lorain,” he said. “It revolves around the Youngstown situation where the academic distress commission hasn’t worked out well. I think Lorain is in a completely separate category. We have been a good partner with the commission, and we are making good progress.”
Dimacchia said he is confident Lorain will emerge from academic takeover within the two-year window.
“We know we are not at the state standard, but we also know we are moving in the right direction,” he said.
The Ohio House and Senate passed the legislation Wednesday and the bill will go to Gov. John Kasich, who is expected to sign it.
Lorain gets a pass on the effects of the law for the short term, but local leaders are condemning it as a means of stripping power away from voters and parents.
“The bill overrides local control and community input to create an unaccountable so-called ‘CEO’ with broad, unilateral administrative power, including the power to change curriculum, hire and fire teachers at will and even to shut down our public schools,” said state Rep. Dan Ramos, D-Lorain. “This dramatic shift in education policy received no hearings or discussion in this house before (Wednesday), and yet it will directly take away power from the people who live in these areas.”
If this legislation befalls Lorain, school board member Jim Smith said he fears local leaders will have no say over the schools. The new superintendent the board hired during a meeting Wednesday could be fired — Jeffery Graham was hired with a 4-1 vote with Smith being the opposing board member — and the CEO will come with a state paycheck and the blessing from the commission, which will be made up of three members appointed by the state superintendent.
“The whole problem, in my opinion, is I don’t know if we can get out of this in two years,” Smith said. “What Tom Tucker has been able to do, even with the academic distress commission in place, has been to improve morale in the district and bring about some changes, but bringing in an outsider will have a very negative effect.”
Smith said he was unaware of the state’s two-year waiver. He worries the state could still uproot everything in Lorain Schools in a couple of weeks.
“Everyone should be very concerned,” he said.
Ramos said the top-down approach is tantamount to the state taking over school districts: Youngstown first, Lorain second.
“Communities and citizens should retain the right to make local decisions on a plan that prepares our children to succeed, not one that fast-tracks a Columbus power grab,” Ramos said.
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