LORAIN — A school board member called for a state investigation of Lorain Schools at the end of July, according to emails released by the Ohio Department of Education as part of a public records request.
The July 26 email sent by Jim Smith to Deputy State Superintendent John Richard said if the state takeover of the district has any chance of succeeding, the “cess pool” that is the district “must be sanitized.”
“I believe it critical that the Ohio Inspector General launch a full scale investigation of the district,” the email said. “Misuse of state and federal monies is high on my list of concerns. Failure to follow board policies is another concern. Conflicts of interest is (sic) prevalent among the other board members.”
Smith’s email said if the state cares about Lorain’s children it will “make certain that district is cleaned up.” Richard, however, replied by an email released with the others that the issues Smith raised need to be dealt with at the local level.
Smith then issued a follow-up response: He would tell a local television reporter about the conversation, according to an email in the packet released.
Smith said Wednesday he requested the investigation because school board member Mark Ballard runs the PACE Foundation, which focuses on encouraging exploring African arts and cultures and often partners with the Lorain school district.
“I was approached by members of the African-American community who told me they were concerned about it,” Smith said. “And if Mark isn’t accepting any money for his work with the PACE Foundation then it’s totally fine, but if he’s receiving compensation, it’s unlawful.”
Ballard, contacted Wednesday, said he does not get paid for his work with the foundation and in the contracts between the PACE Foundation and the school district, that fact is specifically mentioned to make clear that there’s no conflict of interest.
Smith’s emails showed up in the released public records because Lorain school board member Tony Dimacchia requested communications from Richard in relation to the state takeover of the district that implemented the hiring of a CEO in July.
Lorain Schools has a CEO, former St. Louis Public Schools Deputy Superintendent David Hardy, after its test scores did not improve after four years under the purview of an Academic Distress Commission. It is only the second district in the state — Youngstown is the other — to have a CEO structure imposed by the state.
In other emails from Smith to Richard that were released Wednesday, the 10-year veteran of the school board brought several things to the state’s attention that he had concerns over, including:
- Why Tim Williams stepped down as school board president.
- Why Superintendent Jeff Graham approve a promotion for former Distress Commission member Dorinda Hall.
- Whether board members are profiting from district vendors they have a relationship with, referring to Ballard running the PACE Foundation.
- Whether there is an active sex ring operating in the district where employees who don’t participate face retaliation.
- Why Williams informed the media that the superintendent is dating district spokeswoman Erin Gadd.
- Who is in charge of the district during the transition, Hardy or Graham?
The records released did not show if Richard responded to the questions, but on Wednesday, Smith said he posed them in the first place because now that the state is in charge of the district, he wanted them to be aware of his concerns.
“I’m not making accusations,” Smith said. “But I represent the whole city by being on the school board, and I have to look out for their interests.”
Smith said rumors prompted the statement about the sex ring.
“I have only heard rumors and have no evidence,” Smith said. “I once suggested, to Andy Young, that The Chronicle should investigate the rumors, but that was never done. At least not yet.”
The other major concern raised in the records that were released was that, at the beginning of June, distress commission Chairman Tony Richardson requested to see evaluations completed by the school board regarding Graham’s performance only to find out that, despite it being in Graham’s contract, they haven’t been done.
“This is irresponsible and utterly unacceptable,” Richardson said in a June 2 email.
The records released by ODE are just a fraction of what Dimacchia requested. For example, he asked for any and all advertising done by Atlantic Research Partners — the search firm that handled the CEO applicants, which the Ohio Department of Education noted it does not have.
In other cases, Dimacchia requested emails and texts from Distress Commission members but the Ohio Department of Education said because commission members are not state employees, it does not control those records.
Dimacchia did not return a request for comment. The new Academic Distress Commission that was appointed to hire the CEO will meet 5 p.m. today in the Lorain High School media center in Building A at 2600 Ashland Ave.