September 1, 2014

Elyria
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76°F
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Outgoing Lorain board member reflects

LORAIN — It was a trying final year for Lorain school board member Jeanine Donaldson. She said she had already decided before entering her third term that she would not run again, but her 12th year turned out differently than she imagined. A new treasurer discovered that the district was nearly $5 million in debt, an amount that would grow into more than $15 million without drastic cuts.

As a result, the school board voted to lay off more than 240 teachers — a third of the district’s teaching staff —as well as dozens of paraprofessionals and administrators.

The district was blasted for months on television and radio news and in newspapers because of the situation. Board meetings were moved from the Charleston Administration Center on Pole Road into the large gymnasium at Frank Jacinto Elementary to accommodate angry parents.

“It was very shocking,” Donaldson said about learning of the district’s financial state. “We didn’t even have time to react in that sense. We just had to focus on how to keep the district from going under. We didn’t have time to worry about public image or what was being said. We still had work to do.”

CHRONICLE FILE
Lorain school board President Jeanine Donaldson speaks at a meeting in July.

The experience troubled Donaldson, and she stopped getting her newspaper in June or stopped following other kinds of coverage of the school board around then as well. 

“I wanted any decision I made not to be influenced by things I read or saw,” she said.

Parents, angry and frustrated, lashed out at school board members during meetings, and Donaldson said she tried not to take it to heart.

“The city had gone down considerably, and now we were contributing to that,” she said.

Still, she said there was no excuse for the way the adults at those meetings behaved.

“Mostly I was embarrassed for the community because I knew they were going on TV,” she said. “Also I was embarrassed for the children who had to sit there, because the adults were not being very good role models.”

From teacher to board member

Donaldson said she never considered her role on the school board “politics.”

“That’s why I ran in the first place, because it didn’t have anything to do with political parties,” she said. “And I had young kids at the time, so it was a great way to serve and not neglect my children.”

Donaldson’s interest in education began early. A Sandusky native, Donaldson attended Oberlin College to earn a degree in music.

She received her first post-college job as a music teacher at two Lorain elementary schools in the 1970s.

In 1976, she took a position in social work with the Elyria YWCA, running a program to help indigent women. The following year, she became director of the YWCA and has held the position ever since.

A co-worker whose husband was on the Elyria school board piqued her interest about running for a position herself in 1996.

“I was finding out about issues, and I liked that they were doing public service — and it was a public service I could easily relate to because my kids were in school,” she said. “It gave me a chance to be a bigger part of my kids’ lives. Plus, at the time, there were no African-Americans on the school board, and I wanted to help provide a voice to those kids.”

Being the only black school board member was a challenge, and it was one Donaldson said she never overcame.

“People just assume you’re there to serve that population, not knowing that helping one group will ultimately help everyone,” she said.

She had no idea what to expect when she was first elected, and no clue what goals she was trying to accomplish. But it was all made clear after learning that the district’s academic standards ranked 611 out of 624 Ohio school districts.

“As you drive around the streets of Lorain, nothing prepares you for being in a bad urban school district because it looks like a normal community,” she said. “You can’t compare us to East Cleveland or other cities like that, but that’s the pool we being put in.”

Donaldson said she helped guide the district toward improving the district’s education, in part by looking for administrators who had the same focus.

Former superintendent Dee Morgan, who resigned in the midst of the financial troubles, was hired as superintendent in 2001 because of her academic mind-set, and the district eventually raised two notches on the state’s academic achievement list, from emergency to continuous improvement.

Cheryl Atkinson, who replaced Morgan as superintendent, said Donaldson helped to build a cohesiveness among board members.

“I think that she fostered a sense of collegial collaboration,” she said. “She’s a good consensus builder, and a person who not only can get out of the box but kind of see above it. She understood the big picture.”

Reflection

Donaldson said she has finally had a chance to reflect on how the district fell into such a financial shortfall.

Since the discovery of the problems this spring, blame has been placed almost squarely on former Treasurer Jim Estle, who the board has said severely underestimated how much money the district was bringing in.

Donaldson said she now believes the board put too much trust in administrators working on other matters.

“We had our focus and attention on improving the academics of the district, and maybe we were too focused so that we had to trust that everything brought to us was accurate,” she said.

“It was very disappointing. I had already decided not to run for the school board again, and much of that was because I thought we set the district on the right course.”

Still, she said the experience was more than rewarding and she enjoys the fact that she had a hand in improving the education students received. She especially likes knowing that she had a more prominent role in her own children’s development than any parent could.

“When I started, I knew nothing about what the challenges were,” she said. “But I had a chance to be engaged in my children’s lives. I gave them their diplomas when they graduated, and that was pretty neat.”

Contact Adam Wright at 329-7151 or awright@chroniclet.com.