COLUMBUS — State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria admitted there are challenges and concerns in House Bill 70.
Outlining the statute during Monday’s state school board meeting, DeMaria said the conditions the legislation creates makes it “challenging” to implement the change required for a district to get out from under academic distress. Dubbed “The Youngstown Plan” and passed in 2015, House Bill 70 has allowed for the takeovers of Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland schools. Both Youngstown and Lorain have continued to receive failing grades on the state report card while under state control.
“I think the sheer effort required to try to overcome the natural acrimony and dissension that’s created by House Bill 70 has created the conditions where even the best-intentioned individuals are challenged to try to make progress,” he said. “I think the plans, and frankly in Youngstown in particular, had a lot going for it, but I think as the realities of implementation began to set in became really challenging to make the change that’s required. Because that’s what I think a lot of people forget — change is part of it … but if it’s change, we all know the best way to actually help change be created and successfully implemented is to work together; and if you simply can’t engineer by virtue of the obstacles that are created that kind of collaboration, then you’re not likely to achieve success.”
Under the Ohio Revised Code, DeMaria must review all policies and procedures regarding academic distress commissions as implemented by HB 70, and prepare a report with recommendations by May 1.
DeMaria pointed to questions regarding what triggers a state takeover and if a one-size-fits-all approach is appropriate. Currently, a takeover is implemented after a district has received an F on its state report card for three years in a row. DeMaria said there are nuances of grades that would be addressed in the criteria of what marks the requirement for an Academic Distress Commission.
He noted once an ADC is put in place, schools lose local control, creating a fracture between the district and the community it serves.
“The challenge of something that’s so specific as this is it doesn’t necessarily provide one with the flexibility to consider alternative approaches to providing the support,” he said. “I think, and one of the big criticisms of this section is by creating a completely different government structure is what you actually do is create a wedge between the academic institutions and the community, more specifically the political interests of the community.”
He also noted the challenges the CEO’s level of autonomy creates. Having full operational, managerial and instructional control, “There’s really no sense that there is anything left on the table.”
“What I tell people when I contemplate the statute is that if you look it in the abstract and everything went absolutely perfectly in terms of the various choices, the various personalities, the various community participation and so forth and so on, that it could work,” he said. “But at the same time, there are enough pieces and parts to it that create challenging circumstances that make it challenging to be effectively deployed and I think that’s some of what we are experiencing.”
District 11 school board member Meryl Johnson called the bill a “bad law” and “oppressive.” Her district includes East Cleveland, which has been under state control since September.
“House Bill 70 never should have been created in the first place and I’m glad that our legislature, some of them, are seeing the light and are moving in a direction where we can come up with better solutions for our children,” she said.
Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, said she was the chairwoman of the Education Committee when House Bill 70 was passed. She admitted the bill does need some changes, but did not want to see it abolished altogether.
“Unless we can create some other stick, we may not get other communities desperately in need of reform to act,” she said. “But I think that there are definitely revisions called for to (House Bill) 70 as it currently exists.”
There are multiple legislations pending or recently introduced hoping to reform or eliminate House Bill 70 and its far-reaching effects in the state.
Lorain School Board President Mark Ballard attended Monday and Tuesday’s state school board meetings, and met with DeMaria on Monday afternoon. He had requested a meeting with DeMaria in February and sent his observations on the impact of HB 70 on Lorain to the superintendent Monday, noting the Academic Distress Commission had resulted in “total failure” for students in Lorain, Youngstown and East Cleveland schools.
He further proposed an exit strategy for those already under state takeover: creating an Executive Leadership Advisory Counsel made of successful superintendents working in similar districts to support their struggling counterparts.
On Tuesday, he said he is optimistic for what talk in Columbus could mean for Lorain.
“Not only is (DeMaria) talking the talk in private with me, he’s going on record as the lead guy of the ODE saying this will never work. So for that I’m pretty confident and comfortable that they see from Lorain being this guinea pig that there’s going to be some significant changes that are coming.”
Ballard said many State School Board representatives don’t know what’s going on in Lorain and Youngstown, and “the few who do know, they know it’s a disaster.”
He said DeMaria invited him to bring a group from Lorain to Columbus talk about House Bill 70’s impact, including the mayor and academic distress commissioners, to see how to help Lorain through its process.
“Based on our history, we’ve had some challenges in Lorain,” Ballard said. “An their question is, they believe something needed to happen, and so now we get to really talk about a path forward on how they can give us supports instead of this hostile takeover, and really try to build up as a community and bring the community back together.”
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