Local schools, state control: Lorain City Schools celebrate exit from state distress commission
An annual back-to-school celebration for Lorain City Schools was especially exciting for staff and families Sunday as they prepare for a new school year under local control for the first time in more than a decade.
Staff and volunteers at the Back-to-School Bash at Black River Landing in downtown Lorain provided free school supplies, food, haircuts and other resources to families.
Board of education member Mark Ballard said the event has special significance because control of the district was returned to its board and superintendent in the state budget signed by Gov. Mike DeWine in July. He said community trust had been damaged while the district dealt with inconsistent leadership from several different CEOs appointed by the state since 2015.
A lot of hard work has gone into rebuilding that trust, Ballard said, including events like the Back-to-School Bash.
“Any time you label a district as ‘in distress,’ it sends a message to the community that something is up, something is not right,” he said. “And during that time, the charter schools were popping up everywhere, and it seemed like a money grab in a lot of places.”
Superintendent Jeff Graham said enrollment plummeted from about 6,800 students to 5,600 during the years the school was under state control. That number has stabilized recently to about 6,000 as the district has introduced new wrap-around supports, restored arts education and boosted career readiness and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programming.
“I think that we put forth a very conscious effort to focus on the needs of our children and their families,” Graham said. “And I think we've got great people, very talented teachers and administrators kind of making sure that that gets done the right way based on a foundation of equity.”
Lorain, East Cleveland City School District and Youngstown City School District all fell under state control (although Lorain was in some form of state control since 2013) due to House Bill 70 in 2015, a measure that allowed state-appointed academic distress commissions to appoint powerful CEOs with the power of both a superintendent and a board of education.
At the time, supporters argued the takeovers were necessary due to consistently poor academic results at the school districts, which all serve high-poverty, highly diverse populations of students (Lorain's student population is 40% Hispanic and 26% Black).
Editor's note: Ideastream Public Media will check in with East Cleveland and Youngstown's progress in follow-up stories in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, union representatives like teacher Julie Garcia, president of the Lorain Education Association, argue that state control has been more of a hindrance than a help.
She said most of the CEOs the state brought in to oversee the district did not understand the district or its needs, outside the final one, current Superintendent Graham (who had previously worked at the district before the state takeover).
“There was a lot of mistrust, contention,” she said. “It wasn't a good situation. And I think the families and the students all felt that.”
That mistrust came from top-down management styles, said Tim Jama, president of the Lorain Administrators’ Association.
“When it was under state control, we had CEOs in there that would call you in meetings and threaten your job all the time,” he said. “You don't do this, you don't do that. It was a lot of negativity.”
An amendment from Ohio state Sen. Nathan Manning (R-North Ridgeville) in the budget this year dissolved the state academic distress commission and academic improvement plan Lorain schools had been following (which will take effect 90 days after the budget was signed).
Prior to that, in 2021, Lorain, East Cleveland and Youngstown schools were allowed to appoint their own superintendents, and their school boards regained control as long as they followed state-approved academic improvement plans.
Manning said he’s not a fan of Ohio’s structure for state control of struggling districts, noting he voted against House Bill 70 as a state representative in 2015.
“I understand these school districts are struggling. They have unique issues that they certainly need to work on and get better at,” he said. “But it's a very difficult situation and the state should be there more as a helping (hand) rather than taking over.”
Lorain schools also proved they were ready for local control, Manning said, with positive growth measures on the state’s annual report card. Last year, they reported four out of five stars in the “progress” and “gap-closing” metrics, which are measures of districts' attempts to catch up students who are behind academically.
While Manning said he supports East Cleveland and Youngstown's school districts, he said he doubts the amendment would have made it through the budget if their state control requirements were dissolved as well.
“Their (performance) numbers aren't doing quite as well as Lorain,” he said, although he was “optimistic” for East Cleveland and Youngstown’s chances to retain local control as they follow their improvement plans.
While all three districts received one out of five stars in the graduation rate and early childhood literacy portions of the state report card last year, Youngstown and East Cleveland's performance was lower in the “progress” and “gap-closing” measures.
Garcia argued that the state’s report card has never been an accurate measure of districts’ progress. She said high-poverty areas have the smallest tax bases to pull resources from, while a lack of easily accessible, well-paying jobs presents challenges for families and their children.
“We had the shipyards, we had the railroad, we had U.S. Steel,” she said of Lorain’s past, when she was going to school. “Those are all gone, you know. And when I graduated high school, that's where the kids went, they went to the jobs that were here in the community, but they went away.”
Outside of Manning’s support, Lorain has also had a steadfast volunteer organization called It Takes a Village in its corner, advocating for years for its return to local control.
School Board Vice President Barbie Washington and President Courtney Nazario were both founding members of the group. It Takes a Village members showed up to state government meetings regularly to advocate for a return to local control, while organizing town halls and other meetings back home to keep parents in the know about developments within and outside the district.
“Local control means to us that the voters have their voice and power back,” Washington said.
Lorain Mayor Jack Bradley said he was planning to present a proclamation and a key to the city to It Takes a Village’s members down the road to recognize their advocacy.