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Mayor, departing schools chief discuss the future of education in Cleveland

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb and CMSD CEO Eric Gordon speak during a City Club of Cleveland forum on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022.
Michaelangelo’s Photography
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb and CMSD CEO Eric Gordon speak during a City Club of Cleveland forum on Friday, December 9.

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb and outgoing Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon discussed what the future of education could look like in the city, and lessons learned from Gordon’s decade-plus tenure, during a conversation at the City Club of Cleveland Friday.

Gordon endorsed a new approach Bibb has championed to create a broader youth agenda, with an all-hands-on-deck approach between the city, school district and other local partners. Bibb said that agenda is necessary to accomplish the goal of making Cleveland the “best city in America to raise a family.”

Bibb laid out what that agenda could look like, informed by the recent results of a listening tour the mayor’s office conducted:

  • More investment in in-school and out-of-school support for students, including creating a “Youth and Children’s Cabinet” at City Hall to guide that work.
  • A “10-year blueprint” to cut down on violent crime, and to provide students with safe routes to schools.
  • Investments to create “world-class” learning facilities.
  • Recognizing and trying to address the adverse impacts the pandemic has had on students, including a campaign that is in the works with the Cleveland Teachers Union and local libraries to improve literacy rates.
  • Attempts to elevate parents’ voices in decision-making.

The mayor also said he’d had a conversation with Cuyahoga County Executive-Elect Chris Ronayne recently about the county “stepping up” to improve social services, arguing it’s the county’s role, one that has an outsized impact on CMSD families and parents. Gordon agreed that focus is needed.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve actually heard people say, 'Well, those are Cleveland’s kids,'” he said. “I am a Cleveland taxpayer that pays county taxes, and if they don’t want to serve my kids, then give me the money and I’ll serve the kids.”

Bibb said the youth agenda will need buy-in from the county in order to achieve the mutual goals of the city, county and school district to create a thriving community for students and their families.

“We’ve got to make sure we have high-quality parks from the East Side to West Side,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure that we have thriving small businesses in our community. We have to make sure this is a safe place to live and start a business.”

Gordon and Bibb seemed to be aligned on a number of priorities, including the importance of the Say Yes college scholarship program for CMSD students, and their hope that the next CEO will embrace it. Bibb and Gordon both said they expect to see a “short-term” solution coming soon on the funding gap that program has regarding its family support specialist positions, noting they planned to meet later Friday about it.

Early on in the discussion, Bibb mentioned the “rumor mill” that churned earlier this year when Gordon announced he would be stepping down from his position at the end of the school year. Some speculated Bibb had a hand in pushing Gordon out, which Bibb and Gordon have both denied. Gordon said the time was right for him to step down. He said Cleveland often does not do a “good job” at transitions of power, and that these transitions should be done when things are moving in a positive direction to set things up well for the person who inherits the role.

That person deserves the wind at their back so that by the time those tough community decisions have to be made, he or she is trusted in the community in the same way that I've been able to be trusted,” Gordon said.

Gordon noted that in four years, the district will likely be looking at seeking a new operating levy.

The search for Gordon's replacement is moving forward. The school district recently hired a search firm — the Alma Advisory Group out of Chicago — to help find candidates. CMSD spokesperson Tom Ott recently told Ideastream Public Media that the district is expecting to pay Alma a total of about $97,500 for those services.

The school district said in a press release that the firm is a woman-of-color-led consulting services organization that is “committed to diversity and searches that mitigate bias,” which will seek input from stakeholders in the community.

And the school board recently outlined priorities for the next CEO to adopt, including pursuing more equitable outcomes for students by eliminating race-based achievement gaps.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.
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