LORAIN — The school board’s leadership positions were shuffled and its Academic Distress Commission pick was changed in a series of strategic moves Thursday in reaction to the impending transition to a district CEO.
First, Tim Williams resigned as the board’s president, allowing Tony Dimacchia, the vice president, to assume the role and for board member Mark Ballard to become vice president.
“This is not the result of any internal challenges,” Williams said, noting that as the district prepares for a virtually all-powerful CEO to be appointed next week, it’s a challenging and tumultuous time. “It’s completely intentional. We want to use every opportunity to best represent the district.”
Dimacchia, who previously served as the board president before Williams took over in 2016, said the changes were necessary but didn’t occur because of poor performance on Williams’ part.
“Obviously at this point in time we are extremely disappointed in this search process, and as a Board of Education we feel we have to take a little bit more of an aggressive position with the commission and the state of Ohio,” Dimacchia said.
The Lorain district is seeking a CEO, whom the state is expected to pay an annual salary of $150,000 to $250,000, after failing test scores and poor state report card grades caused it to be classified by the state as under academic distress in 2013.
State House Bill 70, passed in 2015, says that if a district is in academic distress and under the supervision of an academic distress commission for four years, the old commission will be disbanded and a new one will be appointed to hire a CEO.
Williams, Dimacchia, Ballard and school board member Bill Sturgill all have expressed concerns with the transparency of the search process for the district’s CEO, a task granted to the district’s Academic Distress Commission.
The commission contracted the search for CEO candidates, at a price tag of $25,000, out to Chicago-based Atlantic Research Partners, who selected five finalists, four of which have professional ties to the firm’s co-founder Joseph Wise.
In a statement released Thursday, Atlantic Research Partners President Jim Hager, who was present in the five interviews this week conducted with the commission members and CEO finalists, acknowledged the connections.
“Several of the finalists already were known to leaders of ARP prior to their applying for the position — some directly, others only by reputation,” the statement said. “Our founders built ARP with a strong team of veteran leaders who have worked in many roles and in many regions. We engage a broad network of professionals … who share a deep commitment to meeting the needs of children, particularly those in underperforming schools and districts. Therefore it should be a surprise to no one with an understanding of education reform work that our professional paths have crossed — often more than once.”
The five finalists were selected out of 37 applicants who included the district’s current superintendent, Jeff Graham.
When asked, Hager said because Atlantic Research Partners is a private firm, it is not required to release the names of the other 31 applicants, and in his statement, he said it was to maintain, “as promised, the confidentially of all applicants who were not named finalists, in order not to jeopardize their current employment.”
Dimacchia also expressed concerns about the timeline — the five finalists were interviewed by the commission and Hager on Tuesday and Wednesday, and a selection has to be made by next Tuesday, according to House Bill 70.
“It took us months to come up with a superintendent and a treasurer,” he said. “We had meetings with each of them three different times. With where we’re at now, we’re just very disappointed. I’m not sure they put enough time into this. We’ll be a good partner if that’s what they want, but we’re not going to jut let things go.”
Councilman Mitch Fallis, D-at large, is a previous member of the Lorain school board and thanked the members at the Thursday board meeting for not giving up fighting for the children of the district.
Police Chief Cel Rivera said he was also disappointed in the search process, leaving the Tuesday CEO Candidates’ Night feeling “deflated” and that the entire process outlined by House Bill 70 is designed to fail.
“What I’ve seen the last year or two is a resurgence of Lorain pride, with this new school being built and the students doing well athletically again,” he said. “What I saw the other day was a dog and pony show that had very little input from the community. It was designed and intended to have very little input from the community. That makes me sad because there’s no one who can come here and succeed without the help of the community.”
The four board members who were present at the meeting — member Jim Smith did not attend after questioning the legality of the meeting because he said there wasn’t adequate time between the notice and the meeting — voted unanimously to approve a resolution asking the commission to suspend the CEO search and obtain the necessary documents, such as the other applications, to complete it without Atlantic Research Partners.
Dimacchia acknowledged the state would likely have to grant the commission an extension on its deadline, but commission Chairman Tony Richardson said in a statement Thursday night the commission intends to make a selection by then.
Changes are coming to the commission regardless, though, after the board removed its pick, teacher Dorinda Hall, from the Academic Distress Commission on Thursday night.
Williams said Hall was selected because she would bring a critical understanding of the classroom to the commission and would fit there well.
“However, the nature of the commission wasn’t an atmosphere of policy so much as it was politics, and there’s a different set of skills needed to navigate that,” he said. “It wasn’t that she lacked skill, but the nature of that room was different than what we anticipated. If there is a person to criticize here, that would be me. I’m very pleased and grateful for her service under a lot of scrutiny and pressure.”
Williams also noted Hall is up for a promotion that would potentially take her out of the classroom as an administrator, and House Bill 70 requires that the board’s pick be a teacher.
Hall did not return requests for comment, but Richardson said the commission would like to thank Hall for her service on the commission.
“Her character and integrity are impeccable, and she truly epitomizes what it means to be a champion and advocate for Lorain City Schools students and families,” he said in a statement.
The board selected Lorain High School social studies teacher and department head Steve Cawthon to fill the spot on the commission.
“There are definitely some red flags about the process so far,” the 26-year veteran of the district said. “I agree that there have been some transparency issues and that the firm took a little bit more of a hold than I would have liked to see. The commission should truly be the ones making the recommendations.”
Cawthon also said that as long as he sits on the commission, there will not be charter schools in the Lorain school district, referring to a section of House Bill 70 that gives the CEO authority to, after two years, turn any “failing” building into a charter school.
Graham had said he would not turn any of the district’s buildings into charter schools if appointed CEO but many of the finalists have connections to charter schools in other states.
Councilman Angel Arroyo, D-6th Ward, who attended the Tuesday Candidates’ Night as well as the Thursday board meeting, expressed his support for Graham, although noting he wanted to see former Lorain administrator David Hall become the superintendent in 2015 when Graham was hired.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t like Dr. Graham,” he said. “I just felt like we needed to have someone who had a connection to our community, and every single one of those candidates said they wanted to connect with our community, but it’s something that Dr. Graham has already come in and done”
Arroyo said the public needs to attend the next Academic Distress Commission meeting 5 p.m. Monday in the media center of Building A at Lorain High School, 2600 Ashland Ave., en masse.
“As an elected official, I’ll give my citizens some damn phones so they can call who they need to call,” he said. “You can be (mad) at me for raising taxes or license plates fees or approving trash bins, but we can’t let this happen.”
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