December 21, 2014

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State still oversees Lorain schools

Roberta Machesky, a Lorain Schools intervention specialist, works on math with Toni Morrison Elementary fourth-graders Ashton Serrano, Ismaya Nair, and Juliana Miranda on Friday. STEVE MANHEIM/CHRONICLE

Roberta Machesky, a Lorain Schools intervention specialist, works on math with Toni Morrison Elementary fourth-graders Ashton Serrano, Ismaya Nair, and Juliana Miranda on Friday. STEVE MANHEIM/CHRONICLE

LORAIN — Their goal is to disband.

But until Lorain Schools test scores improve, the Lorain Academic Distress Commission controls the school district’s academics. Tuesday is the one-year anniversary of the state takeover of Lorain Schools and formation of the commission, which was prompted by four consecutive years of failing test scores.

Lorain and Youngstown are the only Ohio school districts run by unelected, state-appointed commissions.

Among the commission’s powers are the ability to hire and fire, privatize services, approve spending and establish budgets, according to the takeover law. Proponents say the five-member commission has added needed oversight, while opponents say it’s added an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and been uncommunicative.

Commission Chairman Bill Zelei said commission members, all of whom have backgrounds in education, have brought fresh insight and perspective to the district. He acknowledged the commission, which holds monthly meetings that often run three hours or longer, has added another layer of bureaucracy.

“On the other hand, if things were going extremely well, you’d argue that you didn’t need that level of oversight,” Zelei said. “The reason that the commission got put in place is things weren’t going as well as one would’ve hoped.”

Improved test scores will be the ultimate measure of success. Lorain must score a “C” or higher on the annual state report for two out of three years to regain local control, although Ohio Superintendent of Instruction Richard Ross could disband the commission before that.

However, Zelei said the commission wants to do more.

He said the commission supports Lorain’s goal of bringing back elementary school art and music programs that were cut in 2012 due to budget cuts. The goal is part of an overall strategy to reverse shrinking enrollment in the approximately 7,000-student district that has lost some 3,000 students in the last decade.

The commission also wants to boost attendance and graduation rates and increase the number of graduates going to college. It also is seeking to increase teacher expectations of students in the district where 85 percent of students live in poverty and 87 percent of students entering kindergarten don’t meet minimum state standards.

An academic recovery plan was approved by the commission in August and by Ross a month later. Annual goals include increasing students’ mathematics proficiency by 11 percent and reading by 10 percent on the annual state report card compared with 2011-12 state report card results.

Other annual goals include improving third-grade reading scores by 15 percent to meet stricter state promotion standards and increasing high school graduation rates by 13 percent. Long-term goals include achieving a “C” on the 2015-16 report card. Lorain received an F on the 2012-13 report card.

Monthly meetings sometimes involve minutia. At last week’s meeting, Superintendent Tom Tucker was advised to rewrite the job description in an advertisement for a new Lorain High School principal.

“Do you expect a building principal to handle or resolve a problem?” commission member Cathy Deitlin asked Tucker.

“You guys got that?” Tucker asked his staff. “I don’t have time to do that.”

Tucker was hired in 2012 when Lorain was already close to entering academic emergency. Tucker said he spends “quite a bit of time” preparing for meetings, but said he would be doing much of the preparation anyway for school board meetings.

“It keeps us on track, where we need to be, (but) it’s a lot of time,” he said. “We try to be cooperative and give them everything they need.”

Teachers union President Jay Pickering questioned whether the commission has spent its time wisely. Pickering said the commission’s decision to not televise its meetings has kept the public in the dark. And he said he was disappointed that commission members haven’t responded to his offer to meet with the union to discuss academic problems.

“We were almost wondering if they didn’t want to hear from us,” said Pickering, head of the 450-member Lorain Education Association. “They haven’t been very transparent.”

Pickering said some union members worried that the commission might void union contracts, which it hasn’t done. But he said there has been resentment about some commission criticism such as whether bad lesson plans were causing a lack of learning.

“Our teachers are working very hard to try to accomplish what they think the Academic Distress Commission would like to see them do,” he said. “We’re trying our darndest to work with them.”

Board of Education member Jim Smith said the commission could also work better with the board. Smith said he is the only board member who has attended all of the commission’s meetings.

However, Smith noted the board has not designated a board member as a liaison between the board and commission. Smith compared it to a patient having two doctors who aren’t consulting with each other.

“We all should be on the same team in doing what’s in the best interests of our children,” he said. “The best way to do that is to know what each other’s doing.”

Zelei said a liaison might be a good idea and he said the commission needs more help from the state. The all-volunteer commission has not been able to leverage money for the cash-strapped district other than $68,200 last week for a survey of parents and students. The money was left over from a federal Race to the Top grant distributed by the Ohio Department of Education.

While more state money is unlikely, the commission may be getting more help. Ohio Associate Superintendent John Richard said last week that more districts could be taken over in the next couple of years which is partly why a new, four-member academic distress commission office was recently formed by the department. Richard said the office, which has an annual budget of between $200,000 and $350,000, will provide more support for the Lorain and Youngstown commissions.

“We want to be as through as possible because these are ultimately the worst districts in the state (academically),” said Richard, who worked with the Lorain commission in his previous post as senior executive director of the department’s Center for Accountability and Continuous Improvement. “Ultimately, the goal is that the distress commission exits and it’s handed back to the local board. We’d like to do that more effectively than we’re currently doing it.”

Richard said last year that the commission would need about 2½ years to turn control back over to the Board of Education. Given the nature of the academic emergency law, Richard said commissions are almost always going to be in control for at least three years. “Ultimately, it’s based on what happens with the students’ performance,” he said.

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

Academic Commission members

The five-member, all-volunteer Lorain Academic Distress Commission was appointed a year ago. Commission Chairman Bill Zelei and members Cathy Deitlin and Rosa Rivera-Hainaj were appointed by the state. The locally-appointed members are Henry Patterson and Raul Ramos.

  • Cathy Deitlin is a former Lorain Schools teacher and administrator who also spent 22 years as a Rocky River Schools assistant superintendent. She is the former executive director of Reach Higher Lorain, a nonprofit group working to improve Lorain academics.
  • Henry Patterson is an attorney and Lorain County Community College assistant professor with children attending Lorain Schools. He worked for Lorain Schools from 2000-06 helping prepare students for college.
  • Raul Ramos is an LCCC professor and former Lorain Board of Education member who served for 16 years in the 1990s and 2000s.
  • Rosa Rivera-Hainaj is LCCC’s dean of science and mathematics and serves of the board of El Centro, a Latino community center.
  • Bill Zelei is head of the Ohio Schools Council, a purchasing consortium for 192 Ohio school districts. He previously was a superintendent of South Euclid-Lyndhurst Schools, an Ohio associate superintendent and a 16-year Brunswick Board of Education member.

SOURCE Lorain Academic Distress Commission