Senate Bill 110 may not be perfect, but it’s what Lorain needs now, according to Mayor Chase Ritenauer.
At the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, Lorain Police Chief Cel Rivera and Ritenauer gave proponent testimony for SB 110 put forth by Sen. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville. Diane Conibear-Xander, a member of the Lorain Academic Distress Commission, submitted written support for the legislation.
This was the second hearing for the Lorain-specific bill, which would change the makeup of the district’s Academic Distress Commission in favor of more local control — giving one of the state’s appointments to the mayor — and attempt to mend communications between the board, commission and CEO.
SB 110 is one of three bills circulating on academic distress commissions the General Assembly. House Bill 154 would repeal and replace the original takeover law, and House Bill 127 would put a moratorium on the state taking over any other struggling districts. Republican Gov. Mike DeWine also has said he is open to reviewing House Bill 70, the 2015 law outlining the state takeover process of low-performing districts.
From the start of the district’s takeover, the situation has gone from “bad to worse,” Rivera said during his lengthy testimony. Speaking to committee members, he outlined the damage House Bill 70 has done to Lorain Schools and its community despite their hope in the initial legislation, noting the “flawed” process used to pick the CEO.
“They were taken aback by some of the decisions that were made: the authoritarian-leadership style, the lack of transparency — including potential violations of the Ohio Public Record laws — the controlled message, the confrontational approach to our elected officials, the secretiveness and lack of accountability with regard to financial expenditures, the hiring of so many additional administrators — some unqualified and uncertified, most lacking experience … the manipulation of statistics … the constant discord between the school administration versus the Board of Education versus new members of the ADC versus parents.”
Rivera went on to say it hurts him to see students, many African-American or Latino, growing up in the midst of poverty, violence and racism “with no lifeline.”
“‘Loser kid from that loser city who attends a loser school’ … How can you value yourself when everything around you says you’re not worth nothing?”
He said the approach taken in HB 70 has not worked, comparing the control with an occupying force in a foreign country — a comparison he said he does not take lightly, being a Vietnam veteran and once part of an occupying force.
His testimony cut short for the sake of time, Rivera did answer several questions from Committee members.
State Sen. Louis Terhar, R-Cincinnati, asked if the increased moral and changes made in the district had happened three years prior, if it still would have fallen under state takeover. Rivera said he didn’t think the systemic problems children face in Lorain could have been mitigated in two or three years.
“I really think this is going to take almost a generation to change,” he said.
Manning asked the chief how the changes in the district compare with what he’s seen in his 48-year tenure with the police department. Rivera said Lorain has produced numerous successful alumni, from Pulitzer Prize winners to professional athletes, but the constant change in leadership and financial woes has in part brought the schools to where they stand today.
When asked if there is a clear exit strategy for Lorain by state Sen. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, Rivera admitted everything is so divided that there is no real way out. He went on to note that he feels the current ADC is ineffective, with members Patty O’Brien and Michele Soliz “never” speaking at the meetings and not visiting the community.
State Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, noted this is not the last time HB 70 will come up in the committee.
“I wanted to let you know that all eyes are on Lorain and distress commissions right now and trying to figure out what steps we take to move forward,” he said.
During his testimony, Ritenauer said Lorain Schools CEO David Hardy feels he is only accountable to the state appointees on the distress commission.
“He told my appointee to the distress commission — a career educator and former (Lorain) high school principal — that she comes from a place of impurity and does not have children’s best interest in mind,” he said.
He went on to state unless something changes, the district could go into financial distress as well as academic as the school board is refusing to put a $3.1 million renewal levy on the ballot until it gets more information on the CEO’s spending.
“I’m not saying that Senate Bill 110 is a perfect solution or even a long-term solution,” Ritenauer said. “What I’m saying is that it is the solution that Lorain needs now. Next school year is closer than we think, as is the August deadline for submitting a renewal levy to the voters. Lorain cannot afford to operate another school year in this disastrous situation.”
Conibear-Xander’s written testimony outlined similar urgencies, noting the school board has voted to declare a state of emergency in the district.
“Increased local control outlined in SB 110 is of vital importance to correct the situation in the Lorain City Schools,” she wrote. “Increased local control will bring hope back to the community.”
More hearings on the bill are expected.
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