LORAIN — Tom Tucker is getting good grades for his first year as Lorain Schools superintendent.
Tucker, a 57-year-old Lorain native who worked for the school district from 1980 to 2008, returned Aug. 15, 2012. He credits his local ties for allowing him to hit the ground running. Tucker was band director from 1980 to 2003, Admiral King High School principal from 2004-07 and human resources director from 2007-08.
Tucker, who spent four years in Sandusky Schools as assistant superintendent and superintendent, said he knows many people in and outside the district. “It was a lot easier to establish credibility right off the bat,” he said last week.
While knowing the lay of the land helped, Tucker knew he had his work cut out for him. He told staff on his first day that the district was in “crisis mode.” The impoverished district, which receives about $5,700 in state taxpayer money per student, has seen enrollment drop from about 10,000 students to 7,000 in the last decade. Many students have transferred to charter schools — publicly funded, privately run schools.
Lorain cut 182 positions in June 2012 to eliminate about $7.3 million of a $12 million deficit and was close to being financially taken over by the state, which would have meant more cuts. The district hadn’t passed a levy since 1992.
Tucker’s presence — along with a higher turnout in a presidential election year — is credited with helping pass the seven-year levy, which will raise $3.12 million annually. The levy, along with a $3 million loan, improved the finances of the district. While not out of the woods, Lorain is expected to finish with a small surplus this year.
While avoiding a financial takeover, a takeover by an unelected Academic Distress Commission occurred in April. The takeover was because of four straight years of failing test scores.
An academic improvement plan is due to be sent to Richard Ross, Ohio superintendent of instruction, by Aug. 20, and Tucker has been working closely with commission members writing it. Commission member Raul Ramos said Tucker’s help has been “invaluable.” He said Tucker has provided commission members with extensive information and when he doesn’t have what they need, he is quick to get it.
Ramos, a school board member from 1992-2009, knows Tucker well. Ramos’ son, Dan Ramos, now a Lorain state representative, and daughter, Diane Ramos, were both in the band when Tucker was director. Ramos said Tucker was a strict, but fair director and has those traits as a superintendent.
“He knows what he has to do and finds ways to get it done with the cards that are dealt to him,” Ramos said. “He does his homework. He never comes into anything blind.”
Board President Tim Williams said Tucker has a no-nonsense, let’s-get-it-done, no-excuses approach. “We feel very strongly among the board that people are being held accountable, but they’re being given opportunities to learn and to grow and develop,” Williams said.
Board member Jim Smith also praised Tucker saying Tucker walked into a “pretty big mess.” Smith said the district had been headed downhill for years and it can’t be turned around overnight. Besides trying to improve academics and finances, Smith said Tucker is starting to promote the district which Smith said is crucial to regaining students lost to charters, open enrollment and school voucher programs.
“It’s going to take years to be back where they were, but I’m now seeing signs were moving forward,” Smith said.
Smith said Tucker is far more transparent than former Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson who left in 2011. Atkinson was seen as aloof and secretive by critics, and Atkinson’s annual salary — $250,000 compared to $189,000 for Tucker — was a lightning rod for detractors who saw her as overpaid and underperforming as dozens of staff members were laid-off.
Tucker said morale has improved as teachers, who were forced to switch jobs because of layoffs, were moved back to where they performed best. The levy allowed full-day kindergarten to be restored, allowing some teachers to be recalled.
Tucker has downsized the Charleston Administration Center, which was seen as bloated under Atkinson. And Atkinson’s reading program was scrapped for one that Tucker said teachers feel more comfortable with and will save money.
Tucker said improving reading scores to meet tougher new third-grade reading standards is a top priority, as well as adapting to new letter grades for the annual state report card. He acknowledges it won’t be easy. About 85 percent of Lorain students live in poverty and 87 percent of students entering kindergarten don’t meet minimum state standards.
However, Tucker said Lorain students deserve a good education and he and teachers will do their best to provide it.
“Where we are is where we are,” he said. “It’s time to move forward.”