LORAIN — If members of the school board had their way, Jeff Graham would stay on as the head of the Lorain school district as a CEO instead of as a superintendent.
The bad news is, it’s not up to them.
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At a joint meeting of the Lorain Board of Education and Academic Distress Commission on Monday night, four of the five school board members, with the exception of Jim Smith, voiced support for Graham’s application for the CEO position.
“As you can tell, we’re not satisfied,” school board member Mark Ballard said. “I’m asking for me and the constituents that I represent that you really consider and really reconsider adding Jeff Graham to that list. I know you have the power to do that.”
Board member Bill Sturgill also said in his eight years on the board, he has seen four superintendents, and Graham is “the best out of all of them” and should be considered.
Graham said when he spoke with the commission’s search firm, Atlantic Research Partners, he was told he had a “distinct disadvantage” as the district’s current superintendent and was therefore not surprised he wasn’t included on the list of finalists.
Despite Ballard and Sturgill’s requests, commission Chairman Tony Richardson said after the meeting that the five finalists for the position, who were selected by Atlantic Search Partners rather than the commission, are the five who will be interviewed and that Graham will not be added to the list.
The finalists are:
- Vilicia Cade, senior director of secondary curriculum and professional development for Christina school district in Wilmington, Del.;
- David Hardy, deputy superintendent of academics for St. Louis Public Schools, St. Louis, Mo.;
- James Henderson, former associate superintendent for academic support for St. Louis Public Schools, St. Louis, Mo.;
- Lloyd Martin, former superintendent of schools Academy for Urban Scholars, Columbus, Ohio;
- Eric Thomas, chief support officer for University of Virginia Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education, Charlottesville, Va.
The Lorain district is seeking a CEO after failing test scores and poor state report card grades caused it to be classified by the state as under academic distress in 2013.
State House Bill 70, passed in 2015, states that if a district is in academic distress and under the supervision of an academic distress commission for four years, the old commission will be disbanded and a new one will be appointed to hire a CEO to take over.
A CEO would have the full authority of a superintendent and of a school board, with the exception of placing levies on the ballot, and would also have the ability after two years in power to take “failing” buildings and turn them into charter schools, something Graham said he wouldn’t do.
School board member Tony Dimacchia said he believes the state wants to make Lorain into a charter-school system and through the CEO search process, they’re taking the necessary steps to make it happen.
Dimacchia also said so far, he’s been disappointed with the selection process, especially considering one finalist, Martin, has previously worked for Atlantic Research Partners and another finalist, Thomas, works as a consultant for the Ohio Department of Education on academic distress commissions. Dimacchia said he wanted to apologize to staff, students, families and members of the community.
“As a board member, I have failed you,” he said. “I drank the Kool-Aid that state Superintendent Paolo DeMaria and the state politicians served up. I was naive to believe that the state of Ohio was coming in to work with our students to create a better academic system. I was naive to believe there would be a legitimate process.”
Dimacchia said he felt members of the Academic Distress Commission were puppets and “pawned off their one role” on Atlantic Research Partners, who didn’t know what the district was about.
“How can they fix a district that they haven’t taken the time to understand?” he said, also questioning the transparency of the search and if changing leadership at this point in the district’s history would be the best for students. “I should have known better.”
Richardson, a former Lorain city councilman, said he felt it was a personal attack and Dimacchia’s statements were “unethical,” although he later said he thanked Dimacchia for his passionate words.
Commission member John Monteleone said he disagreed with Dimacchia on whether the state is doing this to the school district — he believes the district controls its own destiny.
“However, for the sake of consistency for our community and community partners, I was disappointed that our current superintendent wasn’t on that list.”
Monteleone also said he was disappointed the list of finalists was released without the commission being able to discuss them first, which Richardson said occurred because of a public records request from the media dated July 10.
“I had a legal duty for once those things were in my hand to give them to the media,” Richardson said, having previously noted that Atlantic Research Partners narrowed the field of 37 applicants down to the five finalists, rather than the commission itself.
Richardson was referring to a request from The Chronicle-Telegram for the CEO candidates’ applications that were due at 11:59 p.m. July 10.
Members of the public also voiced their support for Graham with General Johnnie Wilson Middle School teacher Meaghan Burns saying he helps the district be a “phoenix that rises from the ashes.”
“These headhunters did us wrong,” she said. “(Graham) gets it. He’s been getting it, and he loves us and he loves our kids. If they didn’t take the time to get to know us, what makes you think they’re going to send someone who takes the time to get to know us?”
Richardson noted members of the community pushed back against Graham’s hiring in 2015 when current Oberlin Superintendent David Hall, then an assistant superintendent in the Lorain Schools, also was up for consideration.
However, Monteleone noted it was a slightly different situation two years ago as the district was looking at what Hall might have done as opposed to now where Graham is getting ready to start the third and final year of his contract.
“I see the correlation you’re trying to make, and I agree, because I was one of those people who had ties with Dr. Hall, but the difference is, Dr. Hall didn’t have a two-year helm at the district at that time,” Monteleone said. “We were looking at a projection of what he would do, and now we’re looking at concrete evidence.”
Richardson responded saying he’s not sure Graham’s record in the district holds up.
“When you look at the state of the district, we are still in distress, and while the issues predate Dr. Graham, the work still hasn’t been done,” he said.
The five CEO finalists will be interviewed today and Wednesday, and the public will have the opportunity to meet the finalists at a CEO Candidates’ Night at 6 tonight in the media center of Lorain High School, 2600 Ashland Ave.
Richardson has said he wants to have a CEO selected by the end of the week, but House Bill 70 affords the commission until July 25 to make a final decision.
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