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Cleveland Teachers Union raises concerns about Bibb boosting support for charter schools

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb delivers his first State of the City address on Wednesday evening at the Maltz Performing Arts Center on Case Western Reserve University's campus.
Michaelangelo’s Photography
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb delivers his first State of the City address in mid-April at the Maltz Performing Arts Center on Case Western Reserve University's campus.

As Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon prepares to step down later this year, the direction of the schools and their relationship with local charter schools especially is coming into question.

Shari Obrenski, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, says she is concerned about rumblings she’s heard regarding Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb’s administration drumming up more support for charter schools in Cleveland. The Bibb administration will play a large role in working with CMSD to choose the next CEO, who will have plenty of influence on the matter.

“The concern that is starting to emerge from some in the education community, CTU included, are some of the comments that we’ve heard from the mayor and his administration around expanding charters in Cleveland,” she said. “And making it easier, for example, for students from outside the district to attend charter schools. And we’re really not interested in that.”

Bibb did not respond directly to the question of whether he wanted to encourage expansion of charter schools in Cleveland. He did say his vision for education includes room for both high-quality public schools and high-quality charter schools in Cleveland.

“It has to be both,” he said. “If you really read the Cleveland Plan, this is about high-quality public options in all of our neighborhoods. Because in my opinion, Cleveland’s kids can’t wait.”

Outgoing Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon was instrumental in development of the Cleveland Plan to reform the city’s public education system, a plan that Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb says he wants to “double down” on in partnership with the next CEO.

Bibb clarified that he believes charter schools in Ohio do need further regulation.

“We’ve had a state that for far too long has allowed for-profit charter schools to prey on families,” he said. “And we need more accountability to shut those schools down across the state. And we need more charter accountability in Cleveland. And I support that.”

But there’s a big difference between for-profit private schools and public charter schools in Ohio. For one, public charter schools – which are run by nonprofit or private entities - are publicly funded, cannot decline to accept students, are audited by the state, and receive annual report cards grading their performance, just as public schools do.

In Cleveland, under the Cleveland Plan, there are 17 public charter schools that partner with CMSD schools, and as such they receive a 1.5-mill portion of CMSD’s levy dollars, said Meghann Marnecheck, executive director of the Cleveland Transformation Alliance.

The Transformation Alliance was created through the Cleveland Plan to vet new charter schools that come into Cleveland and to watch over the partnership between charter schools and CMSD.

CTU President Shari Obrenski said her concern with charter schools in Cleveland is that there’s limited resources to go around. The state’s school funding formula means dollars follow students, and so more students not attending public schools means less funding for public schools.

“In an age where we have a teacher workforce shortage, more schools means there’s fewer teachers to go around, and that doesn’t help anyone,” Obrenski added.

Plus, public charter schools often have non-union teaching staff, meaning those workers have nobody to advocate for them, Obrenski argued, and have “pay and working conditions that are far below what we have in the district.”

Marnecheck, with the Transformation Alliance, noted there are standards charter schools must agree to and keep up with in order to be a partner with CMSD. One is that 80% of students enrolled must be CMSD residents.

She provided notes from a recent "external" working group meeting of the Transformation Alliance’s board, wherein some working group members were split on a recommendation to reduce that student residency requirement from 80% to 51%. The mayor is the chair of the board, while the rest of the board is made up of representatives of charter and public schools and other education-facing organizations. Obrenski confirmed Bibb voiced his support for reducing the requirement during that meeting.

Advocates for the policy change argued that it will increase Cleveland families’ public school choices, according to meeting notes, and that CMSD schools themselves don’t have any such mandate. They said the requirement “needlessly shuts out hundreds of Cleveland families who are choosing a school in Cleveland,” and noted that charter schools operate on “lean budgets, receiving about 30% less per-pupil funding than other public schools.”

Advocates against the policy change said keeping the 80% requirement will ensure Cleveland taxpayer dollars are supporting schools where the “supermajority of students” are Cleveland residents, in a time of finite resources.

“It makes sense that levy dollars should be targeted to schools with the highest number of Cleveland students,” the notes read.

Bibb did not directly say if he supported such a measure when asked. He said he’s been “in conversation” with members of the board to “make sure that we can grow the number of Cleveland students going to high-quality options across the entire city.”

“And how do we do that as quickly as possible is my main focus as mayor,” Bibb said.

Ideastream Public Media has previously reported that during his election campaign, Bibb did receive a $5,000 donation from Barbara Rosskamm, wife of the former Breakthrough Schools CEO Alan Rosskamm. Records show he received an additional $5,000 from Alan Rosskamm.

Breakthrough Schools operate a number of the CMSD-partnered public charter schools that receive levy dollars.

Helen Williams, education program director with the Cleveland Foundation, was part of the group that worked on creation of the Cleveland Plan. She said questions around the expansion of charter schools versus public schools are the "wrong" ones to ask.

“We need to double down on the schools that we have and ensure that students are getting the experiences and the services that they need,” she said. "The other piece is that when you look at Cleveland, Cleveland has a supply and demand mismatch. We have many more seats than we have students to fill them.”

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.