Belmont High School Principal Donetrus Hill uses a bullhorn to urge students to get to class on time. Dayton schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said the state’s current takeover model requires schools that are already in the midst of a turnaround plan to scrap it and start over. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF
Photo: JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF
Photo: JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF

Ohio school takeover law likely to change, just as Dayton is at risk

Sen. Lehner says details are still being hammered out, but there is “considerable momentum” for a change.

The state takeover system that looms over Dayton Public Schools is likely to be changed by the state legislature this summer before Dayton could be subject to takeover – raising major questions of how DPS will be affected.

The timing is crucial, as Dayton school leaders said this week that attendance and some internal test scores have actually declined from last winter to now. That raised doubts on whether Dayton can improve the “F” it got on last year’s state report card. Under the current rules, an overall “F” in September would put DPS into state takeover immediately.

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But Ohio Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner said Thursday that a new “school turnaround” model will be proposed, possibly as part of new Gov. Mike DeWine’s budget proposal in three weeks. She said the details are not firm yet, but there is “considerable momentum” from both political parties to make changes.

“Right now it’s my No. 1 priority. It’s something I’m working very hard on, and I think all the right people are at the table,” said Lehner, R-Kettering. “I think there’s a general recognition that House Bill 70 as written at the very least needs some tweaking. There are some who would argue it needs a complete overhaul. Exactly where we’re going to end up, I won’t know here for a couple of weeks probably.”

DeWine has to make his budget proposal by March 15, and anything he proposes must go through the legislature. During his fall campaign, he told the Dayton Daily News that he thinks the state needs to re-examine its school takeover model.

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“Those local school boards feel that they’ve been pushed aside,” DeWine said. “What we want to do is give those schools the help they need, but at the same time, keep the community involved in the schools.”

If the changes are just rule tweaks on which schools require state takeover, it’s possible Dayton could still end up in a takeover system this fall. But other state education changes of this magnitude have often been accompanied by a “safe harbor” or phase-in system that prevents immediate implementation.

Two things Lehner did say firmly are that the takeover system will be changed, and failing school performance cannot be ignored.

“I can assure everyone that we are working on it, and at the end of the day we’re going to end up with a much more workable turnaround plan than what we currently have,” she said.

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Ohio’s current takeover system is an effort to improve school performance after a district has three straight years of failing state report cards. An Academic Distress Commission is appointed, with the state superintendent naming three of the five members, and the school board and the mayor appointing the other two.

That commission then hires a CEO, who is given “complete operational, managerial, and instructional control of the district,” according to Ohio law. That includes the right to replace school administrators, hire new staff, choose new curriculum and set class sizes and teacher class loads.

Youngstown and Lorain schools were taken over by the state years ago and continue to operate under Academic Distress Commissions. Youngstown’s school board has challenged the constitutionality of the takeover law, and after losing lower court rulings, their appeal is currently before the Ohio Supreme Court.

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Dayton teachers union President David Romick had a simple statement about the current takeover model.

“It doesn’t work. That’s it,” Romick said.

Romick said he’s heard state-level opposition to a complete repeal of the takeover law. But he said the current system is at odds with Ohio leaders’ stated desire to make smart, data-driven decisions.

“This is the king of not making a data-driven decision,” he said. “Youngstown has been in academic distress for going on 5 years, with no improvement. It proves this model doesn’t work. Something has to change.”

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A bill was introduced in the state legislature last year to ban state takeovers through 2021, but it was never advanced out of committee. State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria briefed the state school board this month on widespread interest in changing the law. And Lehner said Ohio leaders are studying the best models from other states.

Under current rules, Dayton would have to raise its overall report card grade from an “F” to a “D” to avoid takeover. Lehner said the state should look at a variety of indicators that progress is being made, even if they don’t trigger a full letter-grade movement.

“Are we missing something when we aren’t looking at short-term gains?” Lehner asked. “Are they improving on the diagnostic tests as opposed to the summative tests? Is attendance up? Is morale up? Are there those early signs that something good is happening? We need to look at those things as well.”

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Romick and DPS Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli agreed that the best way the state could help is by providing more support to address student health and mental health issues, which have contributed to Dayton schools’ attendance problems. Lolli said the five mental health consultants the district added this year “are not nearly enough.”

She said the district also needs more funding to train teachers and administrators on both academic and social/behavioral concerns, especially for their lowest-graded schools.

“I’m not talking about coaching once a month, I’m talking about regular ongoing coaching, so that I can either coach you up in your instructional practice or coach you out,” Lolli said. “If we had that, and the behavioral and mental supports for the kids, we would be able to change the face of education in schools across Ohio.”

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But for now DPS leaders, students and teachers will head into April’s state testing – which determines most state report card grades – not knowing exactly what those tests mean for possible state takeover.

“It doesn’t make any difference what the state is planning,” Lolli said. “We are continuing to keep our nose to the grindstone and make sure that we improve the education for every student. We should be doing high-quality work every day, all day long for the students we serve, not just because there’s the threat of academic distress. It’s got to be a way of life if you’re a teacher, an administrator, a staff member in the Dayton Public Schools.”

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