Youngstown takeover lessons learned

What a state takeover would mean for Dayton schools

Youngstown became Ohio’s first turnaround target three years ago; progress since has been modest.

State-run school districts must go from an F to a C or better to get moved back under local control, a threshold not a single large, urban district in Ohio met this year. Dayton’s rating was the worst in Ohio.

The Path Forward: The region must rally to fix the Dayton Public Schools

As part of our initiative, The Path Forward, the Dayton Daily News sent a reporter to Youngstown to see what might happen if DPS gets put under the state thumb next year, which will occur if the district records another overall grade of F.

Three years ago Youngstown became the first public school district in Ohio taken over by the state for poor performance. Two other districts have since been given that status, while Trotwood-Madison City Schools avoided the fate this fall when the district’s rating moved from an F to a D.

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This story examines the impact of the law, which remains controversial amid questions about whether it helps or hinders a district’s ability to make progress.

Here is what we found:

• A state takeover strips the elected school board of power, and puts control of the district in the hands of an appointed commission and CEO. The CEO has the ability to close school buildings or, if the schools don’t show improvement, turn them over to a charter school operator. The local school board can still put levies on the ballot, but it has no oversight or say over how the district spends its money.

• The turnaround in test scores in Youngstown has not been dramatic. State report cards released last month gave the district an overall F grade, though it improved in some categories. Still, Youngstown’s test scores remain among the worst in Ohio. Of 608 Ohio school districts ranked for individual performance, Youngstown finished 606th, or third from the bottom. It was 602nd when a CEO was hired to run the district.

• The turnaround plan from Youngstown’s CEO shares similarities with that of Elizabeth Lolli, who was hired this year under a new school board majority. Her plan includes focusing on teacher training and supporting neighborhood schools.

• A turnaround can be a long process. Newark, N.J., last year began efforts to resume local control of that state’s largest school district — 22 years after New Jersey took over the school district.

Broad powers

The head of the Youngstown teachers union has a message for Dayton Public Schools about a possible state takeover.

“Try to avoid it and try to raise the scores as much as possible,” Youngstown Education Association President Larry Ellis said. 

Ellis argues that the takeover in Youngstown put too much power in the hands of CEO Krish Mohip, a former regional superintendent in the Chicago public school district. Mohip, he said, has bloated administrative pay and ignored other problems that have hurt student performance.

“One person has control over everything and there’s not a lot of systems of … checks and balances,” according to Ellis.

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Mohip disputes the assessment, saying the long-struggling district is showing progress.

“What I’ve learned is that when you’re faced with failure such as Youngstown has,” Mohip said, “you should not fear what (a takeover) can do for a district, because at the heart of it it’s really about putting children first.”

Mohip had 90 days to devise a strategic plan when he arrived in Youngstown in the summer of 2016. He’s confident the public will eventually see big improvements in test scores but cautioned against expecting changes too soon.

“We have students that are two, three, four years below level, so it’s going to take more than a year or two to catch them up to where they need to be,” he said. “Last year, 55 percent of students met growth targets. As students meet these growth targets, (and) do this two or three years consistently in a row, that’s when you begin to see proficiency scores rise.”

‘Everyone should be concerned’

Ohio’s takeover law spells out what will happen if Dayton Public Schools gets another F on its report card next September.

Within 30 days a five-member “academic distress commission” would be appointed — three members picked by the director of the Department of Education, one by the DPS school president and one by Dayton’s mayor. One of the state appointments must come from the home county, according to the law.

The commission would have 60 days to hire a CEO, who would take control from the elected school board and have authority to hire and fire staff, make spending decisions or other changes deemed necessary to turn the district around.

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The academic distress commission and CEO would gain additional powers over the years if scores didn’t improve, including the ability to close schools or convert public school buildings to charter schools. After four years, the elected school board would be abolished and Dayton’s mayor would appoint a five-member board, though the academic distress commission would retain its power.

Lolli and the district are in the process of mapping out a plan to avert handing over local control of the district.

“I think everyone should be concerned about the potential for a state takeover,” Lolli said in an interview with the Daily News. “However, parents can be assured we aren’t sitting still and allowing the state just to take over. We are working on changing that course for the Dayton Public Schools.”

The Youngstown plan

The 2015 Ohio law that created the state’s takeover system, House Bill 70, was dubbed the Youngstown Plan because it was created largely to address that district’s struggles over many years. Two other districts — Lorain last year and East Cleveland this year — have since been placed under state control. Lorain received an F on this year’s report card, the first since being placed under state oversight.

Opposition to HB 70 from the Youngstown school board, the union and their supporters was immediate and has not relented. They have fought the plan in court and argue for the law’s repeal. The legal challenges delayed Mohip’s start date as CEO, but he is now in his third year in the district.

“It really was a sour pill to swallow,” Ellis said of the law’s passage. “It felt like it was disenfranchising the voters because you had an elected school board and now somebody was coming in from outside to say (the board) actually had no power whatsoever.”

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The school board is not completely powerless, but its lack of spending oversight puts it in a strange place. For example, Youngstown’s current levy expires next year, so the school board will have to decide whether to seek a renewal levy even though it has no control over how the district spends the money it gets from taxpayers.

Ellis said he agrees with some of Mohip’s changes, such as standardizing curriculum across the district’s dozen-plus school buildings. But he said Mohip has failed to address student discipline problems, run up unnecessary administrative costs and ignored concerns brought by classroom teachers.

The pay given administrators has been an issue with the teacher’s union.

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“That is a concern from most people you talk to is the amount of money the CEO is spending,” Ellis said. “Before he came in the superintendent was the only one that made over $100,000 and now we have like 20 to 30 that make $100,000. (There’s) a lot of increased upper management positions.”

School district officials confirmed that the number of six-figure salaries have increased to about 30 people. But, they said, some of those increases resulted from changes in contracts that call for administrators to work 12 months instead of 10.

Mohip said the district is sound financially. The budget forecasts deficit spending for the next five years, but it won’t put the district in debt because it has a $24 million cash balance, according to Mohip.

But Youngstown school board President Brenda Kimble questions that estimate, saying it doesn’t reflect reality.

“He can spend whatever he likes to spend, whatever he wants to without accountability,” she said. “Because of that, we are just about bankrupt and our district will definitely need that renewal levy to keep it afloat.”

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Kimble said the board doesn’t want to renew the levy without increased accountability.

“We receive no information on what he spends, how he spends, when he spends and what it’s on,” she said. “If we can’t be accountable to our community about how he’s spending our money… we are not going to do that to this community (renew the levy). We will not do it.”

HB 70, Kimble alleges, was never about improving school districts.

“Basically what it is, it’s a basis to charter out a public system,” she said. “This is not good for anybody.”

Statewide review 

As Dayton tries to avoid losing local control of its school district, the law directing those takeovers is under review.

The Ohio General Assembly this year directed the Department of Education to examine the effectiveness of the state takeovers and issue a report in May 2019.

The move fell significantly short of the three-year moratorium on takeovers sought by Democratic lawmakers, who argued that the law is not working.

“The takeovers in Youngstown and Lorain have had atrocious results, but there are models out there that work,” said Rep. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, who sponsored the bill to pause the process. “This moratorium will give us time to find the ways that will actually improve schools for our students and communities.”

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Kasich, who was involved in drafting the Youngstown plan, has vowed to veto any bill that would scale it back. Pointing to individual data points that show progress, including an increase in Youngstown’s graduation rate, Kasich spokesman Jim Lynch said of the law: “It’s absolutely working.”

Paolo DeMaria, the state school superintendent, said the takeover process was never intended to be a “quick fix.”

“There is no fast way to turn around any complex organization with myriad challenges that has been failing for years,” he said. “Buy-in from stakeholders is a critical factor in the success of any organization’s reform effort.”

DeMaria pointed to improvements in high school test results as an indication Youngstown is making progress.

‘We’ve turned things around’

Mohip said the state test scores show meaningful gains in some areas. The district had a 39-percentage-point improvement in meeting performance expectations for its neediest students, and also closed the gap in reading scores for minority and disabled students, according to the report card.

“The report card puts emphasis on proficiency, but we’re concentrating on growth,” Mohip said. “We have to see growth before our students reach proficiency, but we will reach those goals too. Our teachers, administrators, students and families have a lot to be proud of. We’ve turned things around in this school district.”

Some of the Youngstown reforms are similar to what Lolli is trying in Dayton. With few exceptions, Youngstown students are now attending the school closest to their home, and the district is attempting to provide better services to families in those neighborhood schools. As in Dayton, the households of most Youngstown students have incomes that fall under federal poverty guidelines.

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In one partnership, the Youngstown district is working with the local United Way to provide vision screenings and glasses to all kindergarten-through-fourth-grade students who need them.

The district is also offering free full-day preschool five days a week. Mohip has moved his office to East High School as part of an effort to get administrators out of central office and into the schools. 

Youngstown parents and students interviewed expressed a sense things are getting better. Recent graduate Darneal Lewis remembers when the high school was shut down because fights had turned into what some dubbed a riot. After the takeover, he said, “I saw a major change in behavior issues.”

Parents waiting for their kids or grandkids in the parking lot echoed that.

“A few years ago it didn’t seem like kids were doing good in school,” said Alicia Wilkerson, who has children in the 4th, 7th, 9th and 12th grades.“It has gotten a lot better than what it was.”

Data inconclusive

An expert who has studied the effectiveness of turnover laws throughout the country says the data is inconclusive about whether they improve student performance.

A 2016 study of state takeovers found 25 states had authority to assume management of school districts, though not all had exercised it.

“I would say there are cases where districts have made pretty dramatic improvements in the context of state takeover, however they are quite rare examples,” said Beth Schueler, an education professor at the University of Virginia. “It’s difficult to separate out whether or not they would have been able to make those changes in the absence of state takeover.”

Newark schools were under various forms of state takeover for decades until Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010 contributed $100 million to the effort, igniting a new reform push. A study released in October by Schueler and other researchers found student performance declined in the first few years of this decade but improved more recently. However, the study found the improved scores weren’t because failing schools had turned around, but because parents had moved their children to higher-performing public and charter schools.

One of the successful turnarounds occurred in Lawrence, Mass., which has about the same number of students as Dayton, and a similar percentage living in poverty. After years of poor test scores, the state appointed a receiver — Jeffrey Riley — to run the district. Riley was appointed this year as Massachusetts’ commissioner for education.

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During Riley’s tenure at the district north of Boston, English and math proficiency scores increased to historic highs, graduation rates were raised nearly 20 percentage points and dropout rates were cut by more than half. 

Schueler attributed a large portion of the academic improvement to “acceleration academies,” a program that pairs small groups of struggling students with high-quality teachers for an extra week of class during vacation breaks.

Another key, she said: Riley faced little public resistance in the community. He partnered with charter schools and even brought a charter school operator in to manage the lowest-performing public schools. Half his principals were replaced within the first two years, and he entered into partnerships with enrichment programs to extend the school day, she said.

The district is currently undergoing a process that could give it back local control.

Trotwood-Madison Superintendent Tyrone Olverson, who worked with Mohip on the Youngstown plan, is a supporter of Ohio’s law because he said the mere threat of a takeover gives districts the accountability they need.

“When you think about life, you get your best work done when you’re under the gun,” Olverson said. “When everything’s OK… there’s no sense of urgency.”

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