Seeking long-term direction, Oberlin board of education looks to consultants

By Jason Hawk -



Is a consultant needed to help map out the Oberlin City Schools’ future?

David Kircher of Finding Leaders, an Independence-based firm, pitched a $15,000 plan Tuesday to the board of education, saying focus groups could help the district find its footing.

A retired Fairview Park school superintendent, he wants to guide Oberlin through a strategic planning process starting this fall and culminating next spring. A grant from the Nordson Family Foundation would pay for the effort.

Finding leaders would use focus groups to ask community members what values the school system should embrace, where they want to see it in five years, what its mission should be, and what problems need solved.

Finding Leaders would not provide recommendations, however. Kircher said it would gather feedback, use state report card data, and mine public documents, then let the board of education to determine its own destiny.

Similar efforts have yielded results in South Euclid, Lyndhurst, and the Van Buren Schools, he said. The Lorain County JVS has also hired Finding Leaders for its strategic planning.

But Kircher could not give the board specific examples of how other districts used strategic planning results, other than to say they found finances and curriculum to be important to stakeholders.

Oberlin’s education officials were not overly impressed by the Finding Leaders pitch.

“I think we already have a district road map that’s given us ideas on how to drive forward. I think we have a vision for the district. Do we need help here or there? Maybe,” board member Barry Richard said. He later added, “I think we know where we’re going. I don’t think we need someone to tell us how to get there.”

Board president Anne Schaum said the appeal of hiring a consultant is that elected officials don’t have the time to manage the strategic planning process themselves.

Vice president Albert Borroni said he has been involved with strategic planning at Oberlin College, where he is director of the Oberlin Center for Technologically Enhanced Teaching. Like Schaum, he recognized the time commitment and said the school board lacks the time to properly develop a strategic plan.

Kevin Weidenbaum, a former school board member, spoke against hiring Finding Leaders.

He said board members and superintendent David Hall are responsible for planning the district’s future. “To me, this is a waste of a lot of community members’ time,” he said.

Resident Debbi Walsh disagreed.

She said Oberlin is “going into a big time baby bust” with declining enrollment. The school system has competition from charter, private, and online competitors — and meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos does not support public schools. Taxes are high and Oberlin is not desirable to new families, she said.

“I’m looking in my neighborhood and big homes around me are going to people without kids. I think we’re going to be in trouble in the near future,” Walsh said.

She several times countered Richard, arguing that a grant-funding strategic plan would cost taxpayers nothing.

At the culmination of a four-hour meeting, the board did not accept Finding Leaders’ proposal. Instead, it chose to widen the search for a firm to help create a long-term plan.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.


By Jason Hawk