School officials, legislators seek way forward without Academic Distress Commissions

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Groups from the three Ohio school districts under academic distress commissions met in a virtual town hall calling for the elimination of those commissions Tuesday.

Parents, school board members, and state legislators decried the work of House Bill 70, which laid out the role of academic distress commissions (ACD) in taking over school districts considered the lowest performing state report cards. 

The districts currently under academic distress commission control are Lorain, East Cleveland and Youngstown. 

“Our community’s voice and ability to determine how our schools are governed has been taken away from us,” said the Rev. Kenneth Simon, a member of the Youngstown City School District’s distress commission.

Local Control

Members of all three communities said it was hypocritical that Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and the legislature have spoken of the importance of local control in decisions related to COVID-19, but they have endorsed state control for schools through HB 70. 

On top of having the ADCs in the first place, districts said the pandemic has set back schools already fighting to regain control and improve.

“Some schools may not return next year; we really don’t know what that looks like,” said Mark Ballard, school board president for Lorain City Schools. “We’ve effectively lost another year of potential growth which could have led to our district going back to local control.”

Members of the districts also called out salary disparities among the district staff and the CEOs brought in to lead the school takeovers. Ronald Shadd, of the Youngstown City School District Board of Education said the CEO and superintendent are being paid six-figure salaries as the school budgets dwindle.

“$8 million was taken out of classrooms and given to high-paid executives,” Shadd said.

According to the Ohio Treasurer’s Office, Youngstown’s current superintendent, Joseph Meranto receives a salary of $115,884. He made the same amount last year in the same position.

The $23 million in surplus funds the district had before the distress commissions began has evaporated, and if a levy doesn’t pass, a $30 million deficit could take its place, Shadd said.

Shadd previously accused Youngstown’s CEO Justin T. Jennings of financial mismanagement with oversight by the ADC.

In a letter to media, school officials and state officials, Shadd claims the ADC/CEO model of leadership under HB 70 has taken millions of dollars from classroom instruction, removed STEM and Visual Performing Arts programs, reduced music and foreign language courses, eliminated after-school programs and left teachers to work under an expired collective bargaining agreement with a lack of productive negotiations. 

“Ultimately, the district has performed worse under HB 70 in almost every state standard and performance category,” Shadd wrote.

House Bill 154

Shadd and others in the town hall spoke in support of a new piece of bipartisan legislation, House Bill 154, which would eliminate the academic distress commissions. However, one of the sponsors of the bill told supporters that amendments have diverted the original intent of the proposed legislation.

State Rep. Joe Miller, D-Amherst, said the bill was meant to “identify what the social issues, the academic issues, the institutional issues are,” and strategize on implementation.

“After it hit the Senate, it was completely perverted,” Miller said. “What it’s basically done is take HB 70 and put it on steroids.”

The proposed legislation now includes a “state transformation board” to make district decisions, according to Miller.

Other legislators criticized the state report card system as a whole, along with the takeovers that came from the “flawed” data.

“I think duly elected members of the school board should have complete control,” said Sen. Michael Rulli, R-Salem. “The report cards were written with a pro-charter school agenda, and we need a new path.”

The racial makeup of the districts in question was also brought up among a number of reasons the existing state standards need to change.

“It’s no coincidence that majority minority schools are under ACDs,” said state Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan, D-Youngstown. “They were racially motivated from the start.”

The Ohio Education Association is planning a coordinated campaign to circulate a petition against academic distress commissions, and contact legislators to garner support for the change.