New Bill Looks to Release Lorain from ADC

LORAIN — Lorain Schools could see a return to local control, with a bill co-sponsored by the chair of the Senate Education Committee.

Introduced by state Sen. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, Senate Bill 165 could give Lorain Schools three years to hit a set of benchmarks for its academic distress commission to be dissolved. While working toward those goals, local control would be returned, with the local school board serving as the district’s governing body and the CEO’s powers being reduced to those of a regular superintendent.

Lorain, Youngstown and East Cleveland schools are the only districts in Ohio under state control as outlined by House Bill 70. The 2015 law establishes mostly state-appointed academic distress commissions within the academically struggling districts and a CEO with complete operational, managerial and instructional control. Currently, the only power school boards have for districts under academic distress is to place levies on the ballot.

The latest proposal to amend the controversial law only applies to Lorain Schools and comes about a month after Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Delaware, visited the district. Brenner, chair of the Senate Education Committee, has signed on as a co-sponsor of Manning’s bill.

“I look forward to working with both state and local leaders to ensure there is a pathway for Lorain Schools to regain control and provide a high quality education to their students," Brenner said in a news release.

East Cleveland Board of Education member Mary Rice noted applying the bill only to Lorain was unfair, and she plans to work with Sen. Kenny Yuko, D-Richmond Heights, and Rep. Kent Smith, D-Euclid, to see the other districts included in the latest provision.

“I would congratulate Lorain and their current superintendent/CEO for the hard work that they have done and they're being rewarded,” she said. “East Cleveland and Youngstown have worked equally hard and we have to question as to the logic and the criteria for this legislation being proposed. None of the three school districts have reached the criteria that was legislated by House Bill 70, which is an unfair piece of legislation to begin with. And it is predicated on a system of testing that is definitely unfair and very biased.”

Youngstown Board of Education President Ron Shadd declined to comment Thursday until he had more information on the proposal.

Under the proposed law, Lorain Schools would have to submit an improvement plan to the state Department of Education for approval, including academic benchmarks through June 30, 2025. The academic distress commission would continue to exist during that time, but only offer assistance to the district, relinquishing any operational or managerial control it may have to the local school board.

Lorain ADC Chairman Randall Sampson said the law was a monumental step forward.

“The Lorain ADC is in support of a decentralized approach, meaning more local control at the building level with personalized supports provided by the state, central office, Lorain Board of Education and supporting community agencies,” he said.

Those benchmarks could include attendance and graduation rates, Lorain Board of Education President Mark Ballard said, and he said he doubted they would be so “egregious” the district would be unable to meet them.

Lorain Schools CEO Jeff Graham agreed. Lorain Schools already has a strategic plan, which would form the basis of what is presented to the state, just with added goals not just tied to test scores.

House Bill 70’s return to local control requires districts to earn a “C” or better on several components of the annual state report card for two years in a row. Under the proposed law, the district still has a lot of work to do, Graham said, but it already has about a year’s head start.

At the end of the three years, Lorain Schools would be evaluated by the state board of education based on the academic benchmarks included in the plan — which can be extended for up to two years. If the district fails to meet those benchmarks after a total of five years, it will return to state control as established by House Bill 70.

The new legislation is the first HB 70 remedy to include the state school board as a major player in removing the district from academic distress.

Ballard was optimistic at the plan, noting it seems like the state is “checking all the boxes” to let Lorain run its own business.

“In my opinion, it would be the state school board's responsibility to oversee every district in the state of Ohio anyway,” Ballard said. “So to have them as partners, working with us and alongside us and making sure that we're on the same page, I think it's what should be expected from a state school board and that's what they should expect from a school district … I think all the players are on deck, the Senate side, the House side, all of our representatives just believe that we have the buy-in from all the people that are necessary.”

The proposed text is one of close to a dozen solutions to state takeovers of struggling districts to have been introduced in recent years. But walking out of the Ohio Statehouse on Thursday, Graham said he had a different feeling in his stomach and chest.

“I think that what makes this different — I think there's a better understanding of what's truly going on in Lorain,” he said. “The great people we have, we have a solid plan. … We're on the same page.”