State schools chief sets higher bar for Youngstown board

There is little to mistake in the message that Stan W. Heffner, Ohio superintendent of public instruction, brought to Youngstown Wednesday.

Youngstown schools must make greater improvements in academic achievement. And if the Youngstown Board of Education and its administrators and teachers don’t show results, it is incumbent on the Academic Distress Commission to use the considerable power that it has under state law to effect change.

Power to be reckoned with

How far do those powers extend? Here’s what the Ohio Revised Code says:

While the commission must seek input from the district board of education on ways to improve the district’s academic performance, any decision of the commission is final.

The commission can:

Appoint school building administrators and reassign administrative personnel or terminate their contracts.

Contract with a private entity to perform school or district management functions.

Establish a budget for the district and approve district appropriations and expenditures, unless the district has a separate financial planning and supervision commission.

Enforce the authority given to it by state law even when a school board has entered a collective bargaining agreement that would seem to inhibit commission action.

The commission has had that power in the past, whether it has used it or not, and is going to have it for years to come. Once a district has entered academic emergency and a distress commission is created, the commission exists until the state superintendent disbands it in the belief that the district can improve without it, or until the district receives a “continuous improvement” performance rating or better for two of three years.

Given that Youngstown has just squeezed its way out of academic emergency into academic watch, two years of continuous improvement isn’t in the district’s immediate future. And in a meeting with Vindicator editors Wednesday, Heffner did not give the impression that he would be inclined to exercise a superintendent’s prerogative of disbanding the commission without dramatic evidence of improvement.

Setting expectations

Heffner would not go so far as to say he’d read the commission the riot act in his meeting with members Wednesday, but he expects the commission to be more aggressive. And the commission knows that his office has expectations that Youngstown will show more than the minimal academic improvement that has been demonstrated.

That assessment came at the end of an hour long discussion. But during earlier parts of the conversation, he made it clear that other school districts in other states have found ways to provide safe and effective schools where children from all socioeconomic backgrounds learn. He suggested that the distress commission should come up with a focussed plan to improve the district’s academic performance and that the superintendent be required to report to the board monthly on progress being made.

We suggest that the board and superintendent view that as not a suggestion, but an imperative. The alternative is a future in which the academic commission will be exercising its powers in new and expanding ways.

It shouldn’t take that to turn the district around, but if it does no one in Youngstown will be able to say they weren’t given fair warning.

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