Steve Cawthon teaches social studies at Lorain High School. (Michelle Faust / ideastream)

The State of Ohio’s Controversial School Turn-Around Law

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Quality education. It’s what parents want for their kids. Education leaders and state lawmakers say they want the same. Still, many Ohio schools lag behind.

In October of 2015, House Bill 70 passed amid controversy as an intervention for the state’s persistently failing schools.

The two districts confronting the limits and effectiveness of the law – which disrupts traditional district leadership and increases Ohio Department of Education’s oversight — are Youngstown City Schools and Lorain City Schools.

Who oversees a district?

In just over a year only one district, Youngstown City Schools, has tested the new law. Dr. Krish Mohip took the job created by HB70. The district’s Academic Distress Commission (ADC) hired him as the Chief Executive Officer just over six months ago. Lorain will soon follow suit with a new ADC and CEO of their own, because of the district’s poor scores on the latest state report card.

The law, which many see as giving the state the right to takeover districts, is controversial because the CEO has ‘complete operational, managerial, and instructional control of the district.’ The person in this position is hired, not elected, and essentially becomes the local board of education and the superintendent rolled into one.

But local school boards are elected officials. Damon Asbury, Director of Legislative Services for the Ohio School Boards Association (OSBA), calls HB70 a bad bill.

“We think it’s not a very good proposition when you remove the elected representatives of the community from operating their school,” says Asbury.

The OSBA represents the boards that lose their operational powers when a CEO is installed, but others with less of a stake in the matter agree that a newly hired CEO is given too much control.

On the day Mohip took the job this past June, Kenneth Simon, Senior Pastor at New Bethel Baptist Church, put it this way:

“We’re giving the CEO more power than the Lord has to just run a district the way he sees fit.”

Simon’s concern was that power could leave out the community’s input.

How’s it working in Youngstown?

In Youngstown, the school board only has the authority to raise funds with tax levies, but CEO Mohip is running the district. He says he respects the board as an elected body and will seek their feedback on occasion. However, infighting on the Youngstown School Board has been highly publicized and members have walked out of meetings with Mohip.

He says even with the increased power of a CEO, he still answers to the community and a governing body.

“I understand people are nervous and anxious about that, but I also know that an ADC [Academic Distress Commission] is not going to keep the CEO in power if he’s not doing what’s needed to be done academically for children. […] If your goals are working, don’t change goals, but change your action steps.” Mohip says he got his job based on his background in turnaround schools in Chicago Public Schools.

Still, he says you’ve got to take decisive action when students are struggling.

“We’re [the CEOs] not slowed down by some of the other bureaucracy that comes with operating a school district. Not to say we’re making quick decisions and are not making strategic decisions, but at the end of the day we know what we need to do and act upon. I’m able to use the powers that are in the office of CEO to do that,” says Mohip.

The strategic decisions that Mohip is making are laid out in his five-goal plan.

Dr. Krish Mohip addressed the Youngstown community when he took the CEO job this June. (Michelle Faust/ ideastream)

Mohip’s Progress

It’s too soon to tell whether the law and Mohip’s role will bring Youngstown City Schools to the required C-grade-level performance on state report cards, but he’s getting positive feedback.

The Youngstown Chapter of the NAACP gave him a mostly positive report card for his first 6 months of work. Overall, Mohip gets high marks for his extensive outreach to parents and community groups. The civil rights organization leadership makes it clear they’ll continue watching.

So far, feedback is also good at the state level.

“He’s getting in there and beginning to implement his ideas, create the conditions for success in every school building. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been a few glitches and bumps in the road, but by-and-large I think things are off to a good start,” says Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria. “I get a good sense of strong community collaboration, strong participation and those kinds of things.”

What about Lorain?

Although local elected leaders are concerned they will lose their authority over how a district is run, the law allows the CEO to delegate some powers back to the school board as he or she sees fit.

“The statute has some flexibility in it,” says DeMaria.

Leadership in Lorain is hoping for that possibility to become reality in the near future.

“If we disengage our board of education, then we disengage our community, and I don’t think it matters what happens next – whoever the CEO is — we’re going to go backwards,” says Dr. Jeff Graham, Superintendent of Lorain City Schools.

Lorain Superintendent Dr. Jeff Graham (Michelle Faust / ideastream)

Continued Worries

Another thing that worries many employees of failing schools subject to the law is whether they’ll be able to keep their jobs. A CEO has the authority to replace school administrators, permanently close schools, and open charters. Until a CEO and an agenda is in place in Lorain, teachers and administrators are left to read the tea leaves for their future employment.

“The not knowing is probably the hardest part about this. We kind of know that it’s going to be happening, but not knowing what does that look like… What does that mean for us on a day-to-day basis? And there’s a lot of anxiety about it,” says Lorain High science teacher Lynne Rositano.

That uncertainty pushed Lorain City Schools’ leadership to lobby the state to start the process sooner. March 7 marks the date when ODE has authority to start instating a new ADC. Lorain Superintendent Graham was hoping for answers for the district’s employees, but the Ohio Department of Education leadership say they’re limited by the time-frame set by the law.

Some district leadership want to see Graham move into the CEO job, but he says there are conditions under which he’d pass on that opportunity.

“There are some things that I would not do, could not do, based on what I know to be true,” Graham says. “For example, I couldn’t convert one of our schools to a charter school. And if that’s the expectation of this person, then I would not be the right person for the job.”

Whoever takes command of Lorain City Schools has the power to replace staff, but the state superintendent believes that the new CEO will rely on the continuity of the educators already in place.

“The example – not only from Youngstown but from other areas across the country with similar models — is that people don’t usually come in and take  massive personnel actions, or radical changes right off the bat. The planning process (I can’t emphasize enough) has to be inclusive, it is deliberate, it is designed to engage the community and get community buy-in,” says DeMaria.

Under Mohip’s leadership in Youngstown, there haven’t been mass layoffs and there is no plan to turn any of Youngstown City Schools in charter schools.

Learning from experience

Leaning on his past work at Chicago Public Schools, Mohip echoes DeMaria’s sentiment that change needs to follow community needs. He believes it’s best to train and coach the teachers already working in the district.

“You couldn’t fire your way to excellence. There weren’t thousands of teachers out there that you could just hire and come fix student achievement scores at all the schools. We realize that we had to make a significant commitment to developing the teachers and the leaders that were in the schools,” says Mohip.

The formal process of selecting a new Academic Distress Commission that will hire Lorain City School’s CEO begins March 7.

Mohip has some advice for whoever gets the job. “One of the number one things he or she should remember is to listen to the community, and to make yourself available,” says Mohip. “And there’s really great things that are probably happening in Lorain and you want to learn about those things before you come to make changes.”