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Debate Continues Over Mayoral Control Of Schools

Thursday, July 18, 2002 at 5:25 PM

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Summer tends to be pretty quiet on the education front, but behind the scenes in Cleveland several factions are gearing up for what's likely to be a heated debate in the fall. The question of whether or not the city's mayor should continue to appoint the district's board members goes to the voters in November. Some are pleased with a perceived turnaround in school district management since the arrangement was put in place four years ago, but others are not so content. Positions range from total support of the current system to outright opposition, with many coming down somewhere in between. 90.3 WCPN's Bill Rice has the story.

Bill Rice: When state lawmakers wrested control of Cleveland’s schools away from an elected board and placed the district in the hands of then-Mayor Mike White, some were hesitant. State Senator Robert Gardner, who now chairs the Senate Education committee, says he voted for House Bill 269 reluctantly, and then only as an experiment.

Robert Gardner: There weren’t any other districts in the state that were governed this way. And I think before we just locked into something forever, that we would give this thing at least a trial period, and the trial period was going to be more or less like a four year elected term or four year appointed term.

BR: That four-year trial run is now nearing its end, and Gardner feels it’s been a successful one. Before the vote, he says, legislators were almost desperate for the school system to solve its many problems - from high dropout rates and low academic achievement to fiscal shambles. Now the district is fiscally in the black, he says, and academic achievement, while still a major concern, has risen slightly under CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett - a sign Gardner says shows the district is moving in the right direction. Many of Cleveland’s business leaders, some of whom backed the push for mayoral control, agree. Dennis Eckhart heads the Growth Association of Greater Cleveland.

Dennis Eckhart: The Cleveland Public School System is much better off with a responsible citywide leader, accountable to all the voters, as opposed to the balkanized and somewhat parochial approach - failed approach - of the past.

BR: But while lawmakers and business leaders are happy with the current arrangement, others in the community are not. Gerald Henley is a self-described educational, political and business consultant. He was president of the elected school board that was ousted with the passage of House Bill 269, and is now a steering committee member of Civic Empowerment, a group that will actively campaign to defeat the November referendum. Henley was despondent over the move from the beginning. He says the board right now doesn’t answer to anyone, and that citizens should have direct representation in the governance of schools.

Gerald Henley: This board is functioning without any kind of oversight. And my main objective is to see that people have the right to vote, and that the school district is accountable to the taxpayers in educating their children, and that’s not happening right now.

BR: Henley complains that the board maintains no committees, as most school boards do, and no staff to assist board members in keeping up with the district’s business. He sees the current board as little more than a rubber stamp for the administration.

GH: What you have now is a situation where the board appears to agree on everything, and I don’t know how nine people could agree 100% on everything, and that’s the way its done. Every time something gets passed there’s no dissention, and I think dissention is healthy when it done right.

BR: Equally frustrated with the current board is Jim Lardie, who heads an advocacy group called For The Children.

Jim Lardie: What we have really is much like a corporate board. This is a very private group of individuals, they hold public meetings but the public meetings aren’t about serious discussion of the issues. Those meetings are either taking place elsewhere or they’re totally irresponsible.

BR: Irresponsible, Lardie says, if they’re not be taking place at all. Lardie, unlike Gerald Henley, says he’s not necessarily against the concept of a mayor-appointed board. But his group would like to see changes in the way whatever board is in place does business. He says right now there are few set rules regarding the board’s roles and responsibilities to the community, and that that needs to be clarified somewhere. Right now, he says, the only one with any authority to do that is the mayor.

JL: From the political side I think the mayor could do whole lot to be able to say from now on this thing will function in a certain way. The mayor could say we will ask for regulations, they will meet regularly, it will be open, there will be two weeks notice.

BR: So far Mayor Jane Campbell said little on the school governance issue, other than that she’s pleased with CEO Byrd-Bennett’s progress and wants her to stay, and that she’s for continued mayoral control. Board members, of course, defend their work over the last four years. Vice Chair Margaret Hopkins points to the recent and lengthy deliberations over Cleveland’s billion-dollar school renovation project as perhaps the best example of openness and inclusiveness. But, she says, unlike elected boards of the past, the current board restricts its deliberations to policy matters.

Margaret Hopkins: Every time we make a decision we make a decision with what’s in the best interest of educating Cleveland’s children, and is this a policy decision, so that we’re clear about our lines and our role. Boards of the past have tended to micro-manage, become a little too involved in the daily day to day operations of the district, and that’s really not the role of any board, a public board or a private board.

BR: Hopkins says success depends on a capable and trustworthy district manager. They’ve found that in Byrd-Bennett, and the board is happy to let the CEO runs things as she sees fit.

The question on the ballot in November will be very simple and straightforward: Should Cleveland retain the current system of a mayor-appointed board, or revert to an elected one? Such an all or nothing approach could make for an easy decision for voters, but it leaves little room for possibly revising board functions. That’s a debate, Margaret Hopkins says, best left for after the referendum. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN News.

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