“Sometimes the truth hurts,” board member Bill Sturgill, who took office in 2009, said after Tuesday’s board meeting. “But I feel we’re turning the corner.”
The report was prepared for the Academic Distress Commission, the unelected body which took over the school district in April, The takeover was due to four straight years of failing grades on the annual state report card and was released to the commission last month. The report, which included surveying staff, found a “culture of low expectations” that teachers have for students in a district where about 85 percent of students live in poverty and 87 percent of students entering kindergarten don’t meet minimum state standards.
A lack of vision and planning regarding curriculum and standards over the last three to five years has created an atmosphere where “every person is fending for him/herself,” the report found. The report also criticized board members for too often deferring to the superintendent or treasurer and said the process for reviewing board policies is “a mess” with numerous policies not updated.
Much of the criticism of the district concerns how it was run between 2007-11 when Cheryl Atkinson was superintendent. Board member Jim Smith, who took office in 2008, said the report confirms criticism of Atkinson by retired teachers who told him she was incompetent.
The report said morale has improved recently. Superintendent Tom Tucker, who worked in the district from 1980 through 2008, took over in August and is familiar to many administrators and teachers.
“There seems to be an atmosphere of anticipation: an anticipation that a positive change is coming and will pull the district together and give direction where there has not been direction,” the report said.
However, Smith said a strategy for attracting and retaining students needs to be developed for Lorain which has lost about 3,000 students over the last decade. The report said some 1,600 students living in the district last year attended charter schools, which are privately run, but publicly funded.
“We just sit back and cry about all the students going somewhere else, but do nothing to retain or regain students,” Smith said.
Board members said criticism that district leadership often operates in “crisis mode” is valid, but they offered context. Eliminating a $12 million deficit forced some 100 layoffs last year and multiple program cuts. Passage of a levy in November and a $3 million loan have eased financial woes, but Lorain is still projecting a $1.5 million deficit.
The report criticized Lorain’s process for hiring and retaining good teachers, but board member Tony Dimacchia, who took office in 2008, said it’s been difficult when wealthier districts like Amherst and Avon offer higher salaries and more job security.
“This is the first time that we’ve seen light at the end of the tunnel with our financial situation,” Dimacchia said. “When you have that financial deficit looming over you, it’s hard to move forward.”
Board President Tim Williams said policy criticism is partially due to remarks he made when interviewed by the team that compiled the report. Williams said when he took office in 2009, policies were antiquated, but they are being updated. Board members on Tuesday approved 13 new or revised policies Tuesday including those involving reading assessments, programs for disabled students and anti-bullying initiatives.
Given that the Lorain is in academic emergency, which triggered the takeover, Williams said the report had to be critical.
“Though people’s feeling might be hurt because they didn’t talk about what was right, the focus of where we are right now is identifying things that need to be corrected,” Williams said. “I don’t think you can have a real effective strategy for correction if you haven’t clearly, honestly identified the deficiencies.”
A recently released report by the Ohio Department of Education is highly critical of Lorain Schools. Among the findings:
- Teachers have a “culture of low expectations” about students and don’t understand the culture of students.
- There is no vision for where Lorain Schools is headed.
- There is no focused hiring process, leading to high turnover, and principals are reluctant to deal with bad teachers.
- Board of Education members too often defer to the superintendent or treasurer, the process for updating policies is a “mess,” and board members’ overall knowledge of academic and curriculum issues is lacking.
Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or firstname.lastname@example.org.