July 29, 2014

Elyria
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Retiring chief operations officer reflects on bumpy road for Lorain Schools building project

If Lorain Schools can use its new buildings to recruit and retain students, Dan DeNicola will have played a big part.

Dan DeNicola, who recently retired from his job as Lorain Schools chief operations officer, oversaw the districtwide construction project that will conclude with construction of a $72 million new Lorain High School. (CT photo by Bruce Bishop.)

For the last 11 years, the recently retired chief operations officer oversaw the $215.6 million project including plans for the new $72 million Lorain High School where construction is set to being next month.

“It was very gratifying to start with nothing, to build a brand new building (and) to open and see the look on people’s faces when you walked through at the dedication ceremonies,” DeNicola said during an interview earlier this month outside the high school.

While state taxpayers paid for 81 percent of the project, DeNicola said it was frustrating that the Ohio Department of Education’s building design requirements frequently changed while money to pay for them didn’t. DeNicola said that meant being demanding with contractors and staff.

“We were expected to do more with the building with the same amount of money we had at the beginning,” said DeNicola who retired July 1. “I felt by being demanding and trying to get what was fair for what we were paying a fair price for was the right way to handle the taxpayer’s money.”

Shrinking enrollment — the school district went from about nearly 12,000 students when voters approved a bond issue in 2001 to about 7,500 now — meant a scaled back project. It was originally supposed to involve constructing 13 new buildings and renovating seven.

Lorain also experienced depopulation during the decade and rising unemployment as the Ford Motor Co. closed and the steel plants shed workers. The economic decline and the rise of publicly funded, privately run charter schools and open enrollment led to deficits and hundreds of layoffs in the district during the last several years.

Despite the turmoil, DeNicola said the project planners focused on what was best for students and how to keep costs low and local involvement high.

“You can’t go back and unbuild a school, so we had to keep adjusting the project,” DeNicola said. “How do we live with what we have and still continue to make it better without overbuilding?”

DeNicola, hired in 1982 as a carpenter, eventually oversaw 42 cleaners, a combined 40 custodians and maintenance workers and a combined 11 secretaries and supervisors. DeNicola, who worked for Oberlin Schools as buildings and ground supervisor from 1985-98 before returning to Lorain in 1998, also had partial oversight of bussing and food services, which are run by private companies.

DeNicola’s demanding style — colleagues said he frequently asked employees to “step it up a notch” — was fondly recalled at a June 26 Board of Education meeting. Interim Superintendent of Schools Ed Branham remembered DeNicola being his enforcer when Branham coached him in basketball at the former Irving Middle School.

“He wasn’t real tall, but he was stocky and mean,” said Branham, who recalled telling DeNicola to come off the bench and commit hard fouls on the other team’s leading scorer. “Dan was my hit man.”

Branham, who would go on the work with DeNicola as a human resources director and during Branham’s two stints as an interim superintendent, called DeNicola “invaluable” due to his work ethic, leadership and knowledge of Ohio school laws.

Martha Smith, Bond Oversight Committee chairwoman for the project, said the board should consider keeping DeNicola involved in the high school construction.

“I know first hand the value and expertise Mr. DeNicola brings to the table,” said Smith, who has been involved with the project since 2001.

DeNicola, who retired due to anticipated reductions in pensions for administrators by the state, said 55 is too young to permanently retire. He’s interested in consulting on construction of the 350,000-square-foot high school expected to open in late 2015 or early 2016, if district officials are interested. Regardless, DeNicola said he’s proud of his work and handling of taxpayer money.

“I wasn’t going to waste their money just like I wouldn’t waste my own,” he said.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.