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Mayoral Control of Cleveland Schools

Tuesday, October 30, 2001 at 12:20 PM

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Not long after the next mayor of Cleveland takes office in January another campaign will get underway - one that will shape the future of Cleveland's public schools. Both mayoral candidates - Jane Campbell and Raymond Pierce - say the school district has improved since Mayor Mike White took control of it in 1996. Whoever wins will have to take a stand on whether control of the district should remain in the mayor's hands. That question goes to citizens as a ballot referendum next year. 90.3 WCPN's Bill Rice has this report.

Bill Rice- At this year’s Ward Six Labor Day Picnic Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs-Jones had yet to endorse a candidate for mayor. She ultimately chose political newcomer Raymond Pierce over Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jane Campbell, but not because of their stances on school governance. For the most part they share Tubbs-Jones support of the current leadership in the Cleveland Municipal School District.

Stephanie Tubbs-Jones- I believe that the people of Cleveland will recognize that there has been some success with a mayor-appointed board. I don’t want people to be disenfranchised, but because of the instability we’ve had with an elected school board, I support maintaining mayoral control.

BR- Cleveland is one of a handful of U.S. cities where the mayor has either partial or total control over the public schools. Initially a federal judge, citing mismanagement and financial disarray, had ordered the legislature to take charge of the Cleveland district. Lawmakers - anxious to unload the responsibility - handed the reigns over to Cleveland Mayor Michael White in 1996, authorizing him to appoint a school board and hire a Chief Executive Officer. State Representative Amy Salerno chaired the special legislative committee that considered the proposal.

Amy Salerno- The basic issue was what do we, as the state of Ohio, do with the public school system inasmuch as we are not in the business of running a public school system.

BR- Salerno says her committee debated long and hard on the issue, and came to Cleveland for what turned out to be a heated public forum on the issue. Salerno also sought advice from school board members in Chicago, where mayoral control was already firmly established, to tell of their experience. She says she was impressed with the make-up of the Chicago board appointed by Mayor Richard Daly.

AS- He had picked people that had business backgrounds - CPA’s and whatnot that would look at it as a business, I mean, education is a multi-billion-dollar business in Ohio, we spend billions on it.

BR- Salerno says it was her hope that Mayor White would also choose board members with good financial sense. But, she says, the real convincing factor was one of accountability.

AS- It’s not like you can sit there and say there are seven school board members, I’m one of seven, therefore I can’t take all the blame because I’m only one vote. You can’t have any more direct accountability than having the mayor in charge, because he can’t pass the buck to anyone else.

BR- Many in Cleveland, including candidates Pierce and Campbell, say mayoral control in Cleveland has been successful, much to the credit of schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. Campbell says the move has brought much-needed stability to the district.

Jane Campbell- It has given us the opportunity to recruit Barbara Byrd-Bennett to the system and has allowed her to provide the critical leadership that has brought us to the point where the community now believes that public education can work again in Cleveland, Ohio. I think it’s extremely important to preserve that stability.

BR- And to do that, says Campbell, Cleveland needs to continue the experiment, and says she’ll campaign hard to convince citizens to let that happen when the issue comes up as a ballot referendum next year, and says she would support revisiting that decision with voters every five years.

Pierce also feels that mayoral control has stabilized the school system, and lauds the positive impact of CEO Byrd-Bennett. But he believes elected representation on school boards is - quote - “a fundamental concept in Supreme Court law”. He’s proposed a compromise: a combination of elected and appointed board members, with the majority being appointed.

Raymond Pierce- I don’t know what the referendum’s going to be, it may be all or nothing, and in that case we need to maintain for at least the next five years an all-appointed board so that we can maintain stability so we can continue to get the resources and minimize the distractions.

BR- But there are those in Cleveland who were happier with an elected entirely elected school board - among them, councilwoman Fannie Lewis, who complains that the current board and administration are inaccessible.

Fannie Lewis- There were people within the system that you could go to if you need to get something done, and they would make sure the word got to where it needed to go. Right now you can’t get nothin’.

BR- It’s people like Lewis, and the constituents that support her, that the eventual winner of the mayor’s race will have to sway next year. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN News.

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