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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com.

Education Opinion

5 Questions to Ask a CEO Before a District Takeover

By Peter DeWitt — October 08, 2015 4 min read

We have all seen shows like Undercover Boss where CEO’s enter into one of their stores incognito and work along side employees. Through conversations they find that they are a bit disconnected from their working class. The CEO’s find the actual truth within what they thought was the truth happening in the workplaces they were charged with overseeing.

Just like any good drama where everyone fights half way through the show. There is a wayward employee or a way of getting the job done that seems convoluted. By the end of the show everyone comes together and finds love for the corporation. Undercover Boss ends on a high note where workers feel validated and respected. Hugs, tears and surprise vacations all take place, and everyone leaves the show feeling good about where they work. In many cases it’s nice to see the CEO and the workers finding some sort of common ground.

What happens when those CEO’s take over for school districts? Yes...school districts. What happens when workers aren’t only adults but they also happen to be children? Do the CEO’s enter into classrooms to listen to the voices of children under the age of ten? Or do they know what’s best; even when it means making decisions for students who live in households that those CEO’s could never ever understand?

When it is all said and done, do those children feel validated and respected after a CEO takes over their district? Do the issues of a failing school mirror those of a failing district? Employees can be fired but students can’t.

Although this situation is happening around the country in pockets of cities overcome with poverty, the latest victim...or recipient...is the Youngstown City School District in Ohio. Youngstown has been plagued with issues since the steel mills fell into decline in the 70’s, and the recession certainly didn’t help. The school district suffered in the process.

There is no rosy picture. There is no need to hope for the good news at the end of the drama. We all love a good comeback story, but that hasn’t happened yet. School leaders came and went. Teachers came and went. A core group of teachers and leaders stayed in Youngstown because they were born and raised there and wanted something better for the students. They believe in their hometown.

Earlier this summer a waiver was passed by the Ohio government that provided educators with the opportunity to leave their present positions without losing their certification if they resigned by a certain date. The waiver happened to take place right after it was announced that a CEO could take over the school in the coming months. With about 20 days to escape without penalty of losing their certification, Youngstown lost over 100 teachers who wanted to leave before the deadline.

In 2010, the Academic Distress Commission (ADC) was established to take over Youngstown City Schools. According to the Ohio Department of Education,

Conducted under Ohio law, district reviews support local school districts in establishing or strengthening a cycle of continuous improvement. Reviews consider carefully the effectiveness of system-wide functions using the Ohio Department of Education's six district standards: leadership and governance; curriculum and instruction; assessment; human resources and professional development; student support; and fiscal management. Reviews identify systems and practices that may be impeding improvement as well as those most likely to be contributing to positive results.

Although the school district is showing improvement after failing for the last 4 years (according to state guidelines), the Ohio Senate passed a plan to have a CEO run the school district, which could take effect in anywhere from a few weeks to early January.

According to this report by Amanda Smith,

The amendment allows the state to disband the academic distress commission that currently oversees Youngstown City Schools and create a CEO of public schools. That CEO will have full control over every decision in the district, and could decide what rights, if any, would be assigned to the Board of Education.

Despite the combined efforts of teachers, leaders, parents and students, Youngstown City Schools could see a monumental change. Will it be positive or negative? That remains to be seen. Smith goes on to write,

A new five-member academic distress commission will be created, with three members appointed by the state superintendent, one appointed by the Youngstown Board of Education president and one by Youngstown Mayor John McNally."

In the interview, Smith quotes State Senator Joe Schiavoni who says,

That is a major concern. I mean, you are talking about the state superintendent making an appointment of three members to a distress commission, then we get one from the mayor and one from the actual school board. But that is a 3-2 advantage, Columbus vs. Youngstown initially, and then those five have to pick a CEO," Schiavoni said."

Questions to Ask a CEO

The frustration in Youngstown, which has long been in the top five of highest poverty rates in the nation, is palpable. Frustration from why students continue to fail, along with the frustration of constant quick fixes from the state government that haven’t helped to improve the situation at all. Mandates and accountability measures that resulted in compliance but not a lot of improvement or creativity.

Through it all many educators, parents and students have gone along with every change hoping for the best. Despite the overwhelming obstacles there are so many stakeholders who are doing great work with students.

So, much like Undercover Boss when the true identity of the CEO is revealed, what questions will be answered when it comes to their plan? If students, teachers and parents sat in front of the CEO to get a sense of this person’s silver bullet, when all of the other ideas of a governor running for president didn’t pan out, what would they ask?

Would they ask:


  • What educational experience do you bring to the table?
  • How will what you do be different from all the other ideas that have been exhausted?
  • What do you know about student learning?
  • What experiences have you had bringing students out of the harmful effects of poverty?
  • How will you provide an avenue of growth as opposed to an avenue of compliance, and involve all stakeholders in the process?

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

For another viewpoint on what is happening in Youngstown, please click here to read an article from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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