LORAIN — Tensions regarding the legality of the hiring process for the Lorain Schools CEO sparked a racial debate at an emergency Board of Education meeting Monday night.
Lorain NAACP President E. Jean Wrice said she was afraid the school board was “thinking like our president thinks” by fighting the hiring process of David Hardy, who is African-American, as the CEO.
E. Jean Wrice, president of Lorain NAACP, speaks to the Lorain school board Monday at the board’s meeting.
STEVE MANHEIM / CHRONICLE Enlarge
“You guys are playing games,” she told the board. “We’re not stupid. This is Lorain. Don’t start the racism and all this because all these years you’ve never done this before, so why now? Why now? We get it. You got a problem because the man is brown.”
President Donald Trump has come under fire recently for delaying condemnation of a white nationalist rally that turned deadly over the weekend in Charlottesville, Va.
Wrice said she felt the board was ignoring the community by questioning the hiring process.
“It’s time for school, and you guys are playing games, and we don’t got time for it,” she said. “Don’t play games.”
The conversation started when the Lorain school board voting 4-1 to adopt two public records requests filed by board president Tony Dimacchia regarding the search to help get to the bottom of the search process.
“There are a lot of questions that need to be answered, not just for the Board of Education but for our community and our students,” Dimacchia said, noting he sent the first request Aug. 4 and the second Wednesday but has not been given any of the information. “At this point in time, I have received nothing except a statement from the Ohio Department of Education stating that they have a reasonable amount of time to get the records to me as well as from (Academic Distress Commission Chairman Tony Richardson) and the commission. To date, I have received no communications from Atlantic Research Partners, which is very troublesome.”
Atlantic Research Partners was the firm hired by the Academic Distress Commission at a cost of $25,000 to curate CEO candidates and narrow the 37-person applicant pool, which included current superintendent Jeff Graham and former district principal Diane Conibear-Xander, to five finalists, all of whom were African-American.
Four of the five finalists selected by Atlantic Research Partners had ties to the firm, including Hardy. In 2016, Hardy completed the National Superintendents Academy, a program for school leaders owned and operated by Atlantic Research Partners.
Atlantic Research Partners refused to release the names of the 32 candidates who were not named finalists. Those names are among the things Dimacchia is seeking with his public records requests along with communications related to the search.
Lorain Schools has a CEO because 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.
The CEO is expected to have all of the power of a superintendent as well as most of the power given to a school board with the exception of the right to put levies or bond issues on the ballot.
After two years in power, the CEO also can take “failing” buildings and turn them into charter schools.
Initially, members of the school board, including Dimacchia expressed concerns about the fact that Graham was not named a finalist in the search, but at Monday night’s meeting he said that wasn’t the reason for his requests.
“The commission and Atlantic Research Partners could be in violation of open meetings, but we don’t know because we weren’t told anything,” he said. “This wasn’t a thorough operation. If they have nothing to hide, why haven’t I received anything? They’re clearly hiding something.”
School board member Jim Smith, who was the lone no vote Monday night, said he disagrees with Dimacchia, noting that since Atlantic Research Partners is a private company, they shouldn’t have to release the records.
“I believe the search was above board and done correctly, and I think that some people can’t take that they didn’t get what they wanted,” Smith said. “Mr. Hardy is the CEO, and that’s the end of it.”
Dimacchia disagreed, saying since public dollars were used to fund the search, the records should be public and has previously cited state case law confirming that.
“Well then we can make a public records request to the Boys and Girls Club of Lorain County to get your personnel file,” Smith fired back, noting the commission should do so with Dimacchia, saying he would willingly give Smith his file.
Smith said the district used private firms in 2001 and 2007 to hire superintendents and there was no “cry” about it at the time.
Resident and retired teacher Nancy Cook questioned Dimacchia about the decision to look into this particular search rather than others previously conducted by the district.
“Is this the first time you’ve done a search where you’ve asked for all of this information?” she said. “Are you going to go back and ask for all of this information for all of the other searches? Is there something that you guys saw that you didn’t like?”
Dimacchia said he’s not sure what the records will turn up, but he thinks there were some questionable actions and until he gets the records he won’t know for sure.
“You’re looking for something,” Cook said. “What are you looking for? Why don’t you want to give him a chance?”
Cook said Graham, who came to the district from Parma in 2015, was an outsider who was given a chance over then-assistant superintendent David Hall, who had been with the district his entire career.
“There are people who came in through the district and they can’t be superintendent because you wanted someone from the outside, and now you have someone from the outside and you’ve got something to say now?” she said. “Now you’re all concerned? I don’t know.”
Resident Ronald Kelley said he felt the board’s actions were like a witch hunt, and while the board might disagree with the state takeover, it was a mess of their own making.
“The state is here because you guys didn’t do your jobs,” he said. “In my opinion, you should have nothing to say about who the state brings in here. You had your chance. Instead of wasting taxpayers’ money and citizens’ time coming to these meetings, step out of the way. You don’t care about these kids or otherwise the state wouldn’t have something to say.”
Kelley said when Smith wanted transparency in the superintendent search that brought Graham to Lorain, he wasn’t given it.
“You’re not for Lorain,” Kelley told Dimacchia. “I don’t know what you’re for, but it’s not for Lorain.”
Dimacchia mentioned at the meeting that he has spoken with Mayor Chase Ritenauer about his concerns regarding the search process, and Ritenauer isn’t ruling out stepping in.
“I did speak with the mayor’s office on several occasions,” Dimacchia said. “He certainly does support our decision. In our last conversation, he stated that he may look to invoke his right for counsel as the city of Lorain and engage the law director, Pat Riley, as well.”
Wrice questioned what Ritenauer had to do with the situation because he attended the Amherst school district, but Ritenauer said as mayor he has a vested interest in the Lorain district’s performance.
“The way I see it is these are public records that he’s asking for, and they should be made available,” Ritenauer said. “This process was rushed and should have been done like a proper search. This city has been involved with this process since the beginning, and it ought to be. We have a stake in the local schools.”
Ritenauer confirmed Dimacchia’s statement that if the records are not turned over, he would be willing to lend a hand.
“If they aren’t released, we’re willing to help the district and see if we can get involved, and if that means having Pat Riley and the Law Department come in and do work then that’s what it means,” he said.
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