November 23, 2014

Elyria
Cloudy
54°F
test

Lorain Schools’ outgoing interim superintendent reflects on returning

His voice breaking and fighting back tears, Ed Branham on March 29 announced 182 Lorain Schools employees were being laid off as part of $7.3 million in cuts to a projected $12 million deficit.

“This is a major impact on people’s lives,” Branham said. “We’re impacting families and their livelihoods.”

Branham, a longtime Lorain Schools employee who retires next month, had returned to the nearly destitute school district as interim superintendent last September to try to save it. But after an earned income tax levy failed in November, Branham had the thankless task of dismantling much of it.

“That was my toughest and most negative time here in Lorain,” he said. “I love the people here.”

More photos below.

Branham, 66, had been looking forward to retiring from his job as director of graduate studies at Ashland University but said he returned out of love for the school district.

“I still believe in Lorain,” Branham said last week. “I owe a lot of gratitude to the Lorain City School District.”

Branham began his education career at Lorain Schools in 1968 as a coach and teacher at the former Irving Junior High School and stayed in the district until 1991. He returned for a second stint from 1996 through 2002, spending the last year as interim superintendent.

Since Superintendent Tom Tucker was hired in August, Branham has been substituting for Stephen Sturgill, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Sturgill last month began serving a yearlong tour with the Ohio Army National Guard, which will include service in Afghanistan.

Branham, who grew up in Fairmont, W.Va., said getting hired in Lorain may have saved his life because it kept him from getting drafted for the Vietnam War, in which several teacher friends of his were killed after being drafted. Branham’s wife, Phyllis, worked for the district for 28 years, and their children, Andrew and Kerri, went to Lorain Schools. Branham lived in Lorain before moving to Avon after leaving the district.

Branham had wanted to stay and said he had the support of five school unions, but school board members chose an outsider, hiring Dee Morgan, who served as superintendent from 2002 to 2007.

Board member Jim Smith, who took office in 2007, said he regularly attended board meetings during Branham’s first stint as interim superintendent and many parents supported hiring him as permanent superintendent. Smith said board members made a huge mistake in not hiring Branham.

“They didn’t even interview him. They totally insulted the man,” Smith said. “When he left and Morgan came, there was a $9 million surplus in the general fund. Five years later, they were broke.”

Andrew Branham said his father wasn’t bitter about being passed over.

“My father always puts a positive spin on things,” he said. “I was more angry than he was.”

Branham’s optimism and familiarity with the district were what board members were looking for when they sought a replacement for Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson, who left to become superintendent of DeKalb County Schools in Georgia. Atkinson’s long job search and departure at the start of the school year made it difficult to find a permanent replacement.

Originally brought aboard to maintain stability, Branham was soon putting in 60-hour weeks devising a financial recovery plan after the levy failed.

“I gave it my all,” Branham said. “The negative piece of that was knowing that once the levy went down, we were going to be facing millions of dollars in cuts.”

Branham had made levy passage his top priority after his hiring and campaigned hard for it. Branham and Smith said Atkinson’s high salary — she earned $265,810 in total compensation in her final year — while the district was going broke caused voter resentment that helped defeat the levy. It failed by nearly 6 percentage points. Atkinson didn’t return requests for comment last week.

Former teachers union President David Wood clashed with Branham over his recovery plan. Wood said Branham was dismissive of his alternative plan, which called for more cuts of administrators and administrative staff and declaring financial emergency last month. The declaration would trigger a state takeover but also allow a $4.5 million no-interest advance from the Ohio Department of Education, which Wood said could be used to retain teachers and recruit new students to address declining enrollment.

Despite their differences, Wood, who resigned as president of the Lorain Education Association last month, said Branham was always approachable and helped win back the trust of rank-and-file members lost under Atkinson.

“It was always a pleasure dealing with him,” Wood said. “He did have the best interests of the district at heart.”

While an optimist, Branham worries about the district’s future. Lorain’s tax base and population have been depleted, and open enrollment and charter schools cost the district about $5,700 in state money for each student they take.

About 85 percent of the students who remain live in poverty, and Branham said parent apathy is a big problem. He said parents need to actively support the seven-year, 4.8 mill property tax levy which would raise $3.12 million annually and cost the owner of an $80,000 home — the average value of a home in the Lorain school district — an additional $117 annually.

Branham said the levy is a tough sell in a district where voters haven’t passed a new levy since 1992. He had supported an earned income tax levy to be proposed in an August special election, but board members acquiesced to Mayor Chase Ritenauer. Ritenauer said an income tax levy would make it harder to pass a proposed 0.5 percentage point hike in the city income tax he is seeking in November.

Besides a lack of local money, which Branham blames on Ohio’s unconstitutional school funding method, Branham said Ohio has too many small school districts leading to wasteful duplication of services. While technology has revolutionized classrooms, Branham said the pressure to meet state and federal standards has led to an unhealthy focus on improving scores on multiple-choice tests at the expense of teaching good citizenship, critical thinking and problem solving.

Despite the daunting challenges, Branham said there is still a lot that Lorain Schools have to offer. Twelve new school buildings have recently been built, and a $73 million new Lorain High School is scheduled to open in 2015. While 87 percent of students enter kindergarten not meeting state standards, Branham said about 80 percent are at grade level by sixth grade, which he attributes to dedicated teachers.

“That says a lot about how our kids progress if they stay with us,” he said. “Those are the kind of things that we have to get out to the public.”

Branham, who began teaching when paddling was still allowed as a disciplinary measure — his students autographed his paddle after trading detentions for one strike with the paddle — said he’s looking forward to retirement. He and Phyllis Branham plan to spend half the year at their home in Fort Myers, Fla., and he plans to teach part time at Ashland University.

Other than the painful cuts Branham has had to make, he said he’s enjoyed his return to the district.

“But I’m done,” he said with a laugh.

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

Click any image to view larger.