Should CEOs take over struggling schools?

Posted at 11:01 AM, Sep 19, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-19 11:01:23-04

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- A plan to fix failing school districts in Ohio by giving a single executive sweeping powers like creating school curriculum and bypassing teacher contracts is coming under fire before it is even in effect.

The chief executive plan becomes law on Oct. 16 and would first affect Youngstown, which Ohio has designated a distressed district since 2010. Failing test scores, low graduation rates and other performance standards triggered the designation.

But the CEO plan would apply to any school district in the state whose performance was similarly poor and not showing signs of improvement after three years.

"It could be Youngstown today, but it could be another community tomorrow," said Rep. Joe Schiavoni, the House Minority Leader. 

Rep. Joe Schiavoni, Ohio House minority leader

The chief executive would be appointed by a commission made up of three members appointed by the state superintendent of schools, one by a local mayor and one by the local district's board of education.

Once in place, the chief executive would be empowered to make big changes, including:

• Creating the district budget
• Changing school board policies and procedures
• Setting salaries
• Allocating teacher class loads
• Replacing school administrators
• Cutting teachers and staff
• Assigning employees to schools and approving transfers
• Defining employee responsibilities and job descriptions

Advocates like Sen. Bill Coley, a Liberty Township Republican on the education committee, said the changes are necessary to clean up a mess in Youngstown that educators, parents and union officials couldn't pull together to fix without more state intervention.

Sen. Bill Coley

He said the old plan to fix distressed school districts, which involved a commission but not a CEO, worked well in Cleveland and elsewhere. But it hasn't worked in Youngstown.

"You don't want to see this fixed from Columbus, but when they're not going to fix the problem, we're going to," Coley said.

Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, said the chief executive plan takes away too much local control and puts too much power in the hands of one person.

"You know what they say about absolute power. It corrupts absolutely," she said.

Cropper pointed out that the chief executive rule was added to a bill that authorized school districts around the state to adopt Cincinnati Public Schools' widely praised Community Learning Center model.

It establishes partnerships with sponsors from businesses and charities to provide students with critical services they lack such as eye exams and free glasses, dental exams, day care, mental health services and tutoring.

"The community learning center model has a proven record for meeting the needs of students and pushing academic achievement at the ground level," Cropper said. "The amendments that they attached to (the community learning center bill) is the antithesis to what it's about."

Rep. Andy Brenner, a Powell Republican who sponsored the bill, said the CEO takeover was a compromise that fell short of the state superintendent taking full control of the district.

Rep. Andy Brenner

"I think they've gone out of their way to get local people involved (on the commission)," Brenner said. "The person who runs the school district and the academic distress commission, once they come out of academic distress by going from an F to a D, goes away."

He said 95 percent of Ohio's 614 school districts are nowhere near being labeled distressed. Those that could fall into distress, including Dayton and Lorraine schools, can collaborate by embracing the community learning center model to avoid the CEO takeover.

Schiavoni said he conducted about 20 meetings over the summer with parents, teachers, retired school officials, law enforcement and others to come up with an alternative to the chief executive plan. His bill is scheduled to be unveiled next week.

"Their blueprint is for a CEO to do whatever he or she wants to do with a school district, whether it's reconstituting schools into charters or breaking teacher contracts," he said. "What we've come up with is a plan that would put programs in these schools that would actually help schools succeed."

The plan's details are still being finalized, but Schiavoni said it would include changing the makeup of the distressed district commission by having four members appointed by local stakeholders and three by the state superintendent.

He is hopeful his bill can be passed before the CEO plan goes into effect on Oct. 17, buoyed by the fact that five Republican senators join nine Democrats in opposition to the CEO amendments.

"I'm not saying that the bill I'm going to propose will fix all the problems, but it will definitely give this school district and the kids in it a chance to succeed," Schiavoni said.

Coley said other struggling districts won't ever wouldn't have to face the prospect of a CEO takeover as long as they collaborated locally to turn themselves around

He added that Greater Cincinnati districts are excelling.

"You look at what goes on in Cincinnati and southwest Ohio, and we are just very blessed to have great people running our schools and great students," Coley said.

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