Dayton school board demands that leaders attack key problems now

Dayton’s school board on Tuesday charged the superintendent and treasurer with building a plan in the next two months to overcome several longstanding problems hindering student success.

Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli responded that she and Treasurer Hiwot Abraha will have a form of the plan, with cost estimates attached, ready even faster — by the next board business meeting May 28. That’s in part because of budgeting deadlines for the new school year.

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The board identified multiple areas where it wants to see improvement — making teacher salaries more competitive, creating a behavioral and mental health program, expanding high school busing, bringing building maintenance in line with best practices, and hiring, developing or reorganizing talent to best serve DPS.

After the 5 1/2 hour school board meeting, Abraha cautioned that the district can’t afford huge increases in every category.

“As a treasurer, I have to see the long term, not just the bottom line for this year,” she said. “I don’t know what is coming. So I have to put it in my five-year forecast and see which items can be done and which cannot.”

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Abraha and Lolli both said it will be a matter of prioritizing which efforts will have the most impact.

“We’ll send out options and costs before the 28th, so (the board) will have, like a menu — we’re going to choose this, this and this, to equal a certain dollar amount,” Lolli said. “I will not break the bank. I don’t believe in that. I’m someone who cuts positions that are extra or not needed in the school buildings to make sure we’re spending appropriately.”

Argument over legality

The school board was originally scheduled to vote on a formal resolution regarding the plan, but in an hourlong debate, board member John McManus vehemently argued that the specific wording of the resolution violated Ohio law, in part by improperly delegating board authority to the superintendent.

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School board vice president Jocelyn Rhynard said an attorney who represents the district had read and signed off on the resolution, which was created by board members William Harris, Mohamed Al-Hamdani and Robert Walker.

But after McManus brought up specific passages of Ohio law, existing court precedents and a previous state auditor’s ruling, the board unanimously supported his motion to table the formal resolution. Board member Sheila Taylor repeatedly said they should simply have the superintendent present a plan, without acting on the resolution.

The resolution in question said the board would “authorize the superintendent to identify and execute investments” for student success, “and instruct the treasurer” to provide necessary funding.

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McManus said that wording would “put the treasurer in a box” that eliminated checks and balances. If any superintendent proposed a costly, unwise initiative, the treasurer would have to either go along and hurt the district, or be in violation of the board’s resolution.

Board factions

Board members also publicly discussed division and factions on the board more than in the past. Taylor said she was frustrated with others adding late items to the agenda with little time for review. McManus said he was upset that the four newer board members exclude he and Taylor, and sometimes Walker, from discussions.

“You’ve got four votes, we can’t stop you, but what you’re doing here (on the resolution) is so incredibly dangerous and unlawful,” McManus said. “And I ask you, if you never listen to a word Sheila or I have to say, I ask you this one time to reconsider what you’re doing.”

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Board member Karen Wick-Gagnet said she thought the argument over the resolution was just a matter of semantics. But she thanked McManus and Taylor for their input.

“It saddens me a bit to hear of the feelings of division amongst the team, because I think that a team is only as strong as its weakest links, and if our communication has been weak, I apologize,” she said. “As a board, we need to work collaboratively together on these issues to move the district forward.”

Walker said the trio that wrote the resolution “had a level of excitement” about the ability to accelerate student progress, given a financial surplus, adding that they never meant to exclude others. He urged the board to see the consensus they had about the key priorities, and to come together around those.

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