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Paying for the Promise of Education

Wednesday, October 27, 2004 at 2:03 PM

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Cleveland was hit hard this summer by news that the city's poverty rate had become the highest in the nation, and by word that the school district faced a $100 million deficit. Next week, district voters will decide whether to approve an 11.4 mill operating levy to soften the blow of the shortfall. Levy proponents place the economic future of Cleveland's impoverished citizens squarely on the promise of education, and say that without the new tax Cleveland's educational progress will grind to a halt. Opponents say city residents simply can't afford the $68 million annual price tag. ideastream's Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz reports.

Since he left office in 2001, Mike White has made few public appearances. But last week, Cleveland’s three-term former mayor appeared at the East Side elementary school he attended as a child to announce his support for the school levy. It’s no surprise White came out to support education. He has made it clear he’s proud of his accomplishments with the Cleveland schools - making the move from an elected governing board to an appointed one, and leading the push to raise the money needed to refurbish and/or rebuild all of the district’s schools. White says his experience in Cleveland’s schools taught him to believe in himself, and he wants nothing less for today’s students.

Michael White: I can tell you that at this very moment there are 72,000 children that have bigger dreams than I ever had, could do more than I ever done, and they ought to have the right to have their dreams, chase their dreams, and catch their dreams.

This is the first time since 1996 that the Cleveland school district has asked voters for a property tax hike in support of its operations. (The facilities bond issue championed by White passed in 2001.)

But Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett says the widespread cuts of services, programs, and teachers that were implemented in the wake of the district’s $100 million deficit this past summer, are just a hint of what will happen without an additional infusion of cash. She says the consequences will be dire if Issue 112 is rejected.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett: We are such at the bone now. We are at the marrow of the bone actually. We would have to be very thoughtful. We are beginning that process to take to our board the recommendations of the next level of items that are most costly and that is the actual operations of buildings itself.

Last week, the district released its plans for how to use proceeds from the levy, if it passes. Broad goals for the additional $68 million per year include buying textbooks and bringing back some teachers and programs. Also on the list, avoiding further staffing cuts and school closures.

The levy has garnered broad-based support from city officials, business groups, educators, and community organizations. But opponents claim that a silent majority of people across the city see this as one levy too many. Tverner Collier is the immediate past president of the Lee-Harvard Community Association, which voted overwhelmingly to oppose the levy. He says city homeowners are tapped out.

Tverner Collier: Enough is enough; we can’t afford anymore. An old lady called me last night, she said, Mr. Collier. I can’t pay anymore. Well, just like that lady said that, there’s a lot of people saying the same thing, and it’s across the city.

Jim Knight, current president of the Lee-Harvard Community Association, says it’s not just that people are unwilling to pay. Many, particularly seniors, are unable to do so.

Jim Knight: We have some folks in this community, the Lee Harvard community, that’s eating cat food. They may have their home paid for, may drive a decent car and dress okay, but they’re trying to make ends meet.

Knight says it’s time for the state legislature to fix the education funding formula, as the Ohio Supreme Court has directed it to do. Councilman Joe Jones, whose Ward encompasses the Lee-Harvard area, says his phone has been ringing off the hook with residents saying much the same thing.

Joe Jones: People are tired. They want to see some light at the end of the tunnel, and the only way you see some light at the end of the tunnel is by doing something downstate.

Supporters of the school levy don’t dispute this. Lead organizer Arnold Pinkney says after passing the levy, the next step is to turn to Columbus for a real solution. But he says Cleveland schools need help now. And the kids, he says, should always be top priority.

Arnold Pinkney: Somebody 50 years ago paid for my education. So I don’t care where I am in life, I can’t see myself turning my back on children who need a chance to get an education, and some training, so they can make something of their life.

Mayor Jane Campbell and other levy supporters say improvements in the schools - higher test scores, attendance, and graduation rates - are evidence the district is moving in the right direction. She says the only way to continue those improvements is to pass Issue 112. And, she says, the district and its teachers have already done their part.

Jane Campbell: We’ve cut $30 million in administrative expenses. By agreeing through negotiations to change their health care package, every employee of the Cleveland Municipal School System contributed $10 million toward closing the gap.

Levy organizer Arnold Pinkney has been through a number of school funding campaigns and says what makes this one different is that some residents will really struggle to pay the bill. He says he can understand why some seniors are hesitant. But:

Arnold Pinkney: What I say to them is they have to vote their heart and their conscience. I certainly cannot hold it against them because when you have to make the choice about whether you’re going to eat or get medical attention, that’s a hard choice to make. But, it’s not the children’s fault.

Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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