In 2015, led by a passionate Governor Kasich, the Ohio legislature passed HB70 with one reading and little testimony. The goal was pure — provide better educational opportunities for ALL of Ohio’s children — but in practice, the law has been and continues to be detrimental to public education in Ohio and needs to be revamped. I urge legislators and gubernatorial candidates to take notice and learn from what has happened, and will happen, this fall. Let me tell you why I say this:
Having had a front row seat to the state takeover of the Lorain City Schools (LCS) I’ve had some pretty tough questions thrown my way over the past couple years. Now that the state has more school districts firmly within their grasp, more and more people are reaching out for me to share my experiences and “any advice I have to share.”
So, here’s my story. And it’s an important one to share because I have always believed being a superintendent is about taking care of good people — and I have witnessed far too many professional casualties during this process. So many more than were necessary. I blame this on how HB70 was implemented in the Lorain City Schools. Hopefully, this article can hasten the learning curve for those making these decisions in the future.
Since you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you and I share at least one universal truth: The focus of education is about the children who attend our schools and not the adults who work there. That said, we cannot provide what children need to be successful if we don’t surround them with the right people. Caring for them. Teaching them. Assuring their needs are met.
Over my 25 year career, I have been blessed to work with and serve many truly amazing people. Educators get into this line of work because they want to make a difference — because there is honor in the work that needs to be done. And I would argue that those people are needed even more in communities in which their children struggle with the challenges that accompany poverty.
I accepted the Superintendent's job in Lorain one day before HB70 was enacted, and so my entire tenure in Lorain was focused on this reality. I and my team chose to embrace the ADC process because we knew that since the report card benchmarks required a set number, instead of a percentage of improvement, it would be impossible for Lorain to meet the state requirements in the time allotted — just seven months.
My team prepared for HB70 and worked proactively with the Ohio Department of Education to have a smooth and productive transition. 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?
As with every other profession, in order to ensure districts can attract and retain quality educators, we need to understand and appreciate that this is how people provide for their families.
The uncertainty of HB70 meant that as the time got closer for a CEO to be appointed in LCS, this reality became a major distraction to the work that we needed to do as a school district. Staff became more and more nervous because in place of the legal checks and balances of authority that exist between a superintendent and a board of education, soon there would be one person who would have the authority of both.
Under this new governance structure, our administrators’ contracts no longer provided any job security. Educators, some of the highest quality, were looking to leave because of this. They had families to feed, and they no longer had any assurances that their jobs would allow them to do so.
Many others stayed…and wished they hadn’t.
Following HB70, the ODE appointed a new Academic Distress Commission with few ties to the school district. Those five people selected a search firm and found a CEO, all within 45 days. Problems with this selection process are well-documented in local papers so I won't rehash them, but suffice to say, the new CEO was hired from St. Louis and dropped into the district.
Just as predicted, administrators were let go fairly quickly with no reason given. Some applied for their own jobs and didn’t get them.
The CEO has the authority to terminate any administrator and did so with many, leaving well-qualified administrators without jobs or job prospects, and with the Lorain Scarlet Letter on their lapel.
Let me pause and take a deep breath to catch up those of you reading this who aren’t educators. In our profession, almost 100% of the jobs begin in August. 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.
This to me is a major issue, and I feel I must 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.
We stressed that this was a partnership with the state and that “common sense would prevail.” We did this because members of the ODE consistently reassured us that would be the case. As of the posting of this blog, the recordings of the Academic Distress Commission meetings are on the Lorain City Schools website. During those meetings and behind closed doors, members of the ODE led us to believe that people didn’t need to leave and that all would be OK.
Nevertheless, as I shared, it is bad for students when good educators are focused on their own survival or seeking employment in districts where their contracts would be honored. Good educators left. Others were terminated with no warning. And as one would expect, it became very difficult to find good educators willing to take those spots.
This didn’t need to happen. A remedy is/was easy: Make decisions in a more timely manner and avoid this self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.
I believe that leaders have the right to choose their teams — the people with whom they surround themselves. At the same time, I would argue that team members should have the right to choose who they follow. If the selected CEO isn’t someone whose philosophy is in line with your core beliefs, shouldn’t you have the opportunity to recognize that and choose on your own terms to leave to find a better fit?
We anticipated this dilemma very early on and had a very easy solution for the ODE: Make decisions sooner rather than later. The law clearly allows for this.
We worked with the ODE, had many calls and interactions and believed that they would opt for stability in Lorain. We were wrong.
Again, I am writing this blog to not only answer some of the questions I’m being asked from districts soon entering HB70, but to encourage decision-makers to consider how to address some of these unintended consequences of HB70.
I’ll restate now what we requested in Lorain: Make decisions sooner rather than later.
In Lorain, we were being held to the standards of the first ADC law and knew we couldn’t convert F’s to C’s in seven months. Thus, we essentially had two years to prepare for the effects of the law before it needed to be implemented.
Even if the ODE chose to wait for the results of the test, we still had a year and a half to prepare. During that time, we pled with decision-makers to make their decisions as soon as they could. And we explained why (unnecessarily losing good people because they fear what could be, potentially ruining the careers of good administrators because of circumstances out of their control, etc.)
Despite our pleas, instead of speeding up the process (even though they had approximately a year and a half to prepare) they waited until the 11th hour to make every decision.
This is important, as the clock for each decision under the law doesn’t start until the previous decision is made. In this case, their delays resulted in the CEO being appointed long after staff could seek employment elsewhere: The CEO was hired and began work on July 24th. The majority of administrators’ contracts began August 1st.
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.
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.
Leaders in education are watching, and this is what they are seeing: because of HB70, leading in struggling districts can cost you your career. How many would be willing to risk this?
This makes HB70 a self-fulfilling prophecy, because as staff finds out that the CEO can fire them at any point, they look for new, more stable, jobs. This results in a lack of continuity in the leadership of the very districts which are most in need of such stability.
Districts under HB70 will be unable to attract strong and talented staff right at the time when they need them the most. This is the adverse effect of HB70 in very real terms.
For the reasons outlined above, I continue my plea for the process of enacting HB70 to be more respectful to the children this legislation was enacted to protect. 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.
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. 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.
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