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When Leadership is neither Safe, nor Politic, nor Popular

February 14, 2019

 

 

 

Over the last few years, the districts in which I have served as a superintendent have weathered what anyone in education would consider to be unusual and challenging circumstances. However, the challenge I am asked about most often is that surrounding my time as the superintendent of the Parma City Schools. 

 

Even though at the time, our challenges were very public and covered in depth in all forms of media, until now, I have chosen not to respond publicly to the questions I’ve been asked on this topic.  Although I can assure you I was intending to take the high road, I have come to realize my silence was a mistake. 

 

If you’ve read this far into my blog, I’m assuming you know the short story. Ten months after being hired and after the district had failed seven straight levies, our team passed the largest new money levy in the history of the district. As a result, we were able to recreate a school district based on research and best practices. This process included the redistricting of schools, instituting appropriate practices for students with disabilities, implementing and developing a STEM school that thrived, providing 1:1 technology for every student and teacher and rebuilding trust within our staff and community by consistently keeping our promises. 

 

About a year after I left the district to serve as the superintendent in Lorain, the board and new superintendent publicly, falsely claimed their finances and programs were at risk because of information that our administrative team had withheld from them during my five year tenure as superintendent of the Parma City Schools. Eventually, I sued them. Board members resigned and a new majority was elected. Once the new and honorable board members were installed, and it was clear a new superintendent was going to be hired, I was no longer motivated to continue with the law suit.

 

But while that all seems very cut and dried, behind the scenes, the situation was anything but.

 

Although there was considerable debate and public scrutiny as to whether there really were financial issues in the district at the time when all of this occurred, I want to be very clear on this point: I believe the current administration and board members are not at fault for the financial difficulties they now face.  And I am happy to share my story in order to provide answers to the questions I’ve been asked in the hope the district can move forward in the best interest of the students and families it serves.

 

****

 

Maybe it’s best to start from the very beginning…

 

As some of you may know, the debate over whether or not to decrease the number of high schools has been burning in the Parma City School District since the late 1970s. At that time, the board voted to close one of three high schools - only to have new board members elected who reversed that decision. 

 

Over the next 30 years, that same debate continued to linger in the district and dominated the conversations I had with several board members during my tenure as superintendent of the district. 

 

As early as when I was interviewing for the position of superintendent in the Parma City Schools, it was explained to me that my first charge from my new board would be to continue the process they created which included engaging stakeholders, collecting data, reviewing research and making a recommendation on a school consolidation plan that would include whether or not to close high schools. It was also made clear to me that although the recommendation was mine, the decision belonged to the board of education.

 

Although it is not my place to speak to their true motives, there was considerable pressure from some board members to decrease the number of high schools in the district regardless of the outcomes and conclusions of this engagement and data review process. However, the process itself was honorable and we followed it. Based on all of the information we gathered, closing high schools was not a recommendation I could make in good conscience.

 

The honorable Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us - “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”

 

This was surely one of those times for me. And the retaliation came swift and hard from the board members who wanted us to go against the results of that process. It was a difficult five years, but extraordinarily rewarding, because of all that our team was able to accomplish in spite of the chaos and hostility that surrounded us.

 

Less than a month after I recommended a cost savings plan that included maintaining our three high school model, the community supported its largest levy ever after voting down smaller levies - seven straight times. I believe that was due in part to the fact that we engaged our community and my recommendation reflected what they clearly valued.

 

When I left in 2015, our scores were up, every student had an Apple device, we had a growing magnet program in our STEM School, we rebuilt our high school offerings based on student needs & interests, we converted our junior high model to an authentic middle school program, and proper services were finally being delivered to our students with disabilities. I was really proud of what our team had created.

 

****

 

It was not long after I left the district to serve as the superintendent of the Lorain City Schools that I started to hear from members of my previous leadership team about a huge shift in the culture in the Parma City Schools. 

 

Very shortly after the new superintendent was put into place, the administrative team was no longer invited to the meetings they once led. They were no longer authorized to make decisions that were once a staple of their job descriptions. They shared the frustration of watching the board and superintendent demolish all that we had built, and erase all that we had created.  Sadly, things kept getting uglier for many of the administrators who remained in the district.

 

Although it’s common for a new leader to build his or her own team based on shared values and individual strengths, it quickly became obvious to me that the previous board and their superintendent were not just ‘cleaning house’ in the administrative team. Instead, they appeared to want to cause long-term professional harm to these good people - just because they could.

 

And then the board and superintendent made a critical misstep. For reasons I can only guess at, they felt it necessary to email a list of false statements about the district’s financial outlook and programs that our team had put into place (1:1 Apple technology and the STEM school, specifically) to the staff and leaders in the community. 

 

Unfortunately for them, it was and still is very easy to demonstrate that the statements were not only false, but also the board clearly should have known they were false.  Even as I type this, you can find most of the information that contradicts their claims on the Parma City School website, where the correct information is very easily located, and watch video footage or read the minutes of their public board meetings where the correct information is shared. They lied. They knew they lied and they were caught.

 

Shortly after the board and superintendent sent the email, several attorneys quickly reached out to me to explain the fact that the board and superintendent knowingly put false statements in writing and sent it to the staff and community leaders was a pretty big deal - legally speaking. 

 

Early on I had no intentions of seeking legal action. Rather, I accepted a couple offers to speak in public to the allegations made by the board and superintendent to provide the community with the evidence that would quickly and easily set the record straight. However, since the district had a levy on the ballot in November, we agreed to delay the meeting until after the first of the year because I didn’t want my response to negatively impact the levy. Instead, on October 3rd, I announced my intentions to share the truth. (Read about it at this link)

 

The very next day, the Board President resigned. (Watch video here.) Less than a month later, the newly named Board President resigned. (Watch video here.)

 

If you recall, this was during the time that the district alleged they were forecasting a $7 million deficit at the end of the school year. And then a few days later, while sitting at her dining room table, a conscientious parent in the district did a review of the district’s five-year forecast and discovered a $9 million error in favor of the district. (Read about it here.)

 

Needless to say, things were a mess. And if that levy didn’t pass, I couldn’t live with the thought that sharing my story in any way contributed to the loss. So, I waited. 

 

I do believe my patience provided a window of opportunity for voters in the PCSD community to vote on the merits of the levy as opposed to the politics of its leadership. However, when I thought the time was appropriate to share my story, the offers to speak publicly were rescinded because people wanted to move on.

 

Unfortunately, things continued to get worse for the administrators in the Parma City Schools. Here are two stunning examples that were shared with me from people I trust:

 

After the culture of the district began to shift so negatively, a central office administrator notified the superintendent of his decision to resign. After the superintendent shared that information with the board, he reported back to the administrator that the board would refuse to accept his resignation. Instead, the board planned to non-renew him. In the field of education, a non-renewal is the equivalent of a professional death sentence - and I feel comfortable stating that this administrator is above reproach. To salvage his reputation and career, he was forced to inform the board that he would retire. However, because he did not have enough years in the system to retire, he would need to purchase time  to do so - to the sum of nearly $100,000.

 

In another example, an administrator I had brought on board was sent home on administrative paid leave for an astonishing amount of time (many, many months). He explained to me that during that time, he was never even given the chance to tell his side of the story to the district - a situation in which he too felt the only recourse was to litigate. This process resulted in him being brought back to the district and given a new contract.

 

In Paragraph 31 of the Complaint and Paragraph 28 of the District’s Response to the Complaint, the previous board and superintendent openly admit they were motivated by a desire to “remove all of the employees hired by the former superintendent Jeff Graham without regard to their legal or contractual rights.” 

 

It is my belief that one of the primary responsibilities of a leader is to protect good people from bad things. But now that I was no longer in the district, I simply couldn’t buffer them from the politics the same way I had when I was there. Having no other way to be heard, I sued the Parma City Schools to share the truth in a forum where I believed it would be validated. 

 

However, the legal process is a long one. Before I had my day in court, a new board had been elected and it became clear to me that a new superintendent would soon be hired and the district would be in good hands with their new leadership team. For that reason, I agreed to let my attorney settle the issue. 

 

***

 

At this point, you might be wondering what happened to the administrators I was trying to protect. 

 

I’m happy to share they are not only all still working, but they all landed honorable leadership positions in great school districts - including several who are now serving as superintendents. 

 

I’m not saying that my actions are directly responsible for their successes. They’re not. They are very talented educators and gifted leaders who I still reach out to on a regular basis for advice and professional counsel. That said, I certainly sleep better at night knowing that I did all I could to protect good people from bad things. That I recognized it was my time to take a position that was neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but I took it because my conscience told me that it was right.

 

Thank you for your patience as I held my silence these past few years. While it was my intent to take the high road, it appears I underestimated the value of my story for those going through similarly difficult times in leadership.  

 

In addition, it is my deep hope that this in some small way helps clear up any confusion about what occurred in the past, and that today, the leadership in the Parma Schools deserves your trust and support. Believe me when I say the students need your support too.

 

Thanks for listening,

 

Jeff

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