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Former Lorain Schools superintendent writes about takeover

  • Jeff-Graham

    Former Lorain Schools Superintendent Jeff Graham.

    STEVE MANHEIM / CHRONICLE

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A former Lorain Schools superintendent took to the blogosphere this week to discuss his thoughts and feelings on the state legislation that removed him from power last year.

Jeff Graham, who now serves as a regional superintendent in the Cleveland school district, penned a blog post Wednesday in which he said he was choosing to share his experiences with state House Bill 70 as more districts fall within its purview.

“I’ve been getting a lot of questions from other districts, and I wanted to just send out one message to those who are getting ready to go through a similar process,” he said in a phone interview Thursday. “I’m not angry about what happened and of course I have no bitter feelings toward Lorain, but I wanted to share the downsides of this with people.”

Graham was named the superintendent of Lorain Schools in July 2015, the same month the Ohio General Assembly passed House Bill 70, which allows the state — using state report card scores as a metric — to take over districts with a history of academic struggles.

Graham served as the head of the district until last August when a commission appointed by state and local officials bypassed Graham and selected David Hardy to serve as the new CEO. Graham stayed on with the district until December when Hardy abruptly announced Graham would be resigning.

Graham said Thursday while he didn’t actively fight the stipulations of House Bill 70, he wouldn’t change any of his decisions throughout the process. In the blog post, though, he noted there were “far too many professional casualities during this process … so many more than were necessary” and said these were a result of how the law was implemented in Lorain.

“My team prepared for HB70 and worked proactively with the Ohio Department of Education to have a smooth and productive transition,” he wrote. “We believed that this approach would improve our odds of being treated fairly, and be healthier for our community as a whole. Right or wrong, we knew that litigating the process — as was seen in Youngstown — didn’t work. Surely a collaborative approach would support a better end result?”

Youngstown Schools is the only other district in the state to see the full takeover powers of House Bill 70 and plans on challenging the constitutionality of the law in the Ohio Supreme Court because elected school board members are stripped of virtually all power except putting tax levies on the ballot.

As the CEO, Hardy has the ability to terminate administrators at will and Graham said when he came into the district last August, that’s what happened and many qualified people who had spent the last several years working to improve the district had to leave.

“In our profession, almost 100 percent of the jobs begin in August,” he said. “Typically, districts post positions, conduct interviews and make job offers in the spring. Sometimes, districts are behind and they go into the summer. Therefore, if you lose your job after August, then you need to figure out how to provide for your family until the following August rolls around.

“And, oh, by the way, you’ll need to figure out how to explain to any potential future employer why you lost your job, when the reality may only be that the Academic Distress Commission (individuals who may have never hired anyone at any level before, much less a CEO) hired someone whose ideals differed from yours. Or that the new CEO wanted to bring in his/her own people and those people wanted your job.”

Graham said he believes this is a major issue in the way the law was implemented in Lorain, and it’s something for which he feels he should accept some responsibility.

“On multiple occasions, various members of our Board of Education, our mayor and I stood in front of our staff, members of our community and our students and told them to trust the process,” he said. “We stressed that this was a partnership with the state and that ‘common sense would prevail.’ We did this because members of the (Ohio Department of Education) consistently reassured us that would be the case.”

Graham said various stakeholders asked the ODE to appoint a commission sooner rather than later to allow for more stability, and they believed that would be the case.

“We were wrong,” he said.

Instead, the ODE waited until the beginning of May to seat a commission, pushing back the timeline to the point that a CEO wasn’t selected until the end of July and his contract wasn’t signed until the middle of August.

“As a result, good people soon found themselves unemployed, because they had either (1) quickly recognized that they could not support the approach of the new leadership, or (2) they did not fit with what the CEO was trying to create,” he said. “I also know several quality educators who either chose to leave or tried to leave — because the risk of staying was unacceptable — even though they loved the district. These are good people who are excellent educators. I don’t know why they lost their jobs. I just know that most of this could have been avoided.”

Graham’s wife, Erin, was one of those who left the district after serving as the schools’ spokeswoman for two years.

The district also lost administrators like Carol Gottschling, its executive director of human resources, after Hardy replaced the department with the “People Office.”

“I continue my plea for the process of enacting HB70 to be more respectful to the children this legislation was enacted to protect,” he said. “This blog is not about making excuses for poor test performance. Failing school districts need to provide stronger opportunities for students. But HB70 actually hinders that process — it unnecessarily damages progress.”

Graham expressed concerns about what will happen to other struggling districts when report cards are issued in September.

Hardy previously said that he doesn’t expect to see a change in Lorain Schools’ scores this year after spending his first year at the helm “laying the foundation” for the next several years rather than coming in and making instructional changes.

“Three districts face the same fate as Lorain when report cards are issued this September — report cards which have seen changes in grading and methodology every year since this law was enacted,” Graham said. “This means thousands of students now face even more uncertainty, with some very excellent educators themselves facing some very difficult decisions.

“Please share your concerns with your legislators.”

Contact Katie Nix at 329-7129 or knix@chroniclet.com. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @KatieHNix.


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