What happens when a district is taken over by a state-led commission? Trotwood hopes to avoid finding out

July 27, 2018

Trotwood-Madison school officials said preliminary test scores from this spring show solid improvement, but they won’t know until mid-September’s state report card release whether the gains are enough to stave off takeover by an Academic Distress Commission.

The comments came at Thursday night’s school board meeting, where Ohio Department of Education officials presented the results of their district review from April. In that weeklong visit, an ODE-assigned team met with 180 school stakeholders and studied more than 100 documents to identify strengths and problems in Trotwood’s day-to-day operations.

Trotwood is trying to avoid becoming the third district in the state to be operated by a Distress Commission. If the five-member commission is triggered, the state superintendent would appoint a three-member majority, while the school board would appoint one teacher, and Trotwood’s mayor would appoint the last member. Those appointments would have to be made within 30 days, and the group would have to hire a CEO within 60 days.

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Ohio law gives that CEO “complete operational, managerial, and instructional control of the district,” including the right to replace school administrators, hire new staff, choose new curriculum and set class sizes and teacher class loads.

Feedback from the April review by the state included a mix of improvement and challenges.

“You had some wonderful comments on your strengths,” state school board member Charlotte McGuire told Trotwood officials. “The challenges are more systemic – the old cliché of making sure you’re crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s. That’s what it comes down to.”

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Clairie Huff-Franklin, ODE’s director of Academic Distress Commissions, said the review identified 11 strengths and 16 “challenges” in the district. Strengths included collaboration with outside entities, academic programs outside the school day and strategies to support family engagement.

Challenges included failure to work with educators and parents on improvement plans and several issues of consistency — a lack of consistent coaching to teachers, a lack of consistent academic support for certain students with disabilities and the lack of a system to allocate grant money effectively.

School board members Denise Moore and Vanessa Jeter-Freeman repeatedly said that Trotwood is not the same school district today that it was in April and has already fixed several of the issues ODE raised. They cited progress after new members joined the school board this year, and a flurry of activity after the April hiring of interim superintendent Tyrone Olverson, who took over seven days before the state review.

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But Ohio law is clear that only the data in the district’s state report card — based largely on April’s state tests — will decide whether Trotwood is taken over. After two straight years of bad scores, if Trotwood receives an overall grade of “F” this September, an Academic Distress Commission will be appointed to run the district.

Moore, the board president, said preliminary 2017-18 data puts Trotwood’s Performance Index, one key part of the state report card, at 49.5 this year, up from 45.9 when Trotwood ranked last in the state last year. But other pieces of the report card that contribute to the overall grade, including student growth measures, are not clear yet.

“We’ve come a long way. We flipped it, from 45.9 to 49.5 … and (student growth) still has to be calculated,” Moore said. “But if we don’t get there, we’ve already had conversations (about) how can we make this model work, how can we align ourselves with an Academic Distress Commission and the state and a CEO and still help our students and our district progress. That’s all we want.”

Olverson said the plan he has been aggressively implementing the past few months largely overlaps with the recommendations that came from the state review team. Olverson knows Ohio’s Distress Commission process, as Trotwood hired him away from Youngstown schools, where he was the No. 2 administrator in their commission. If Trotwood does need an ADC, Olverson might be a candidate for CEO, as someone who has experience with both this district and the state process.

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Thursday’s meeting had one bizarre stretch during which ODE’s Huff-Franklin confused Trotwood schools with Dayton Public Schools, repeatedly saying Trotwood had another year before possible takeover, before others at the meeting corrected her.

And there was opposition to the whole idea of Academic Distress Commissions from board member Norman Scearce and Judge Jeff Rezabek, who was state representative for the Trotwood area the past three years. Rezabek peppered Huff-Franklin with comments, saying it didn’t make sense to force Trotwood back to square one with new leadership, saying they are now headed in the right direction with 2018’s changes.

Scearce repeatedly asked about Ohio’s only two existing ADCs, in Youngstown and Lorain schools. Those schools have been in state takeover for years without improving enough to get out of that status. When Rezabek and Trotwood officials pointed to that lack of improvement, Huff-Franklin repeatedly called their performance “subjective.”

Huff-Franklin said the Ohio Department of Education will return to Trotwood in six months to see how well the district is doing with the review team’s recommendations.

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