News: School Leadership

Pre-election discussions focus on Cincinnati Board of Education skills

Matt Borgerding

Rick Williams and Melanie Bates, members of the Cincinnati Board of Education who opposed a recent tax levy, address a forum hosted by the Citizens School Committee.

With the election more than seven months away, it's a bit early to decide who would make a good school board member, but it's not too early to discuss the qualities involved in being one.

To that end, nonprofit organizations, school officials and concerned citizens met March 24. The Citizens School Committee, co-sponsored by the Cincinnatus Association and Cincinnati Parents for Public Schools, held its fourth in a series of meetings to determine the components necessary to improve both the leadership and performance of Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS).

The crowd of 40 that turned out to hear CPS board members Melanie Bates and Rick Williams speak got a little less than they bargained for; in a raspy whisper, Williams informed the audience that he was suffering from laryngitis. During the 90-minute, town hall style meeting, he relocated himself among the audience to be better heard.

Not enough chairs
Williams and Bates fielded questions regarding the school district's $22 million deficit, $64 million in planned budget cuts, children leaving the district and the appointment of a new superintendent.

From the audience came numerous references to the disunity among CPS board members. Bates and Williams came under fire last year when they dissented from the rest of the school board by actively campaigning against renewal of a tax levy for the district (see "Schoolhouse Brawl," issue of Oct. 13-19, 2004).

During the meeting Williams defended his opposition to the tax levy by showing charts of increasing expenses and jobs within the district while student enrollment has decreased. But even when board members don't agree, the community is still being served, he said.

"When a school board is elected, they are seven individuals that are running that had individual ideas before they became a group," he said. "They have seven different reasons to be in disagreement — and that's not necessarily a bad thing, because they're representing different ideas from the community."

While moderator Kent Friel tried to keep the meeting on track, those with hands in the air when he called time seemed to have more to say. Discussions never became heated, but some audience members, including school board member John Gilligan, were cautioned about badgering the speakers.

Friel, chair of the education panel of the Cincinnatus Association, says he's amazed by the passion of the audience and the strong turnout that continues to increase each week.

"When we started out, I think there were 12 organizations that came to the first meeting," he says. "By the last meeting we were up to 21 different organizations being represented, and we've clearly hit a hot button here. We think we have more of a tiger by the tail than we thought when we started all this. We're having trouble finding enough chairs for people to sit in right now who are joining us."

The meeting closed with an update on an outside consulting group being hired to outline qualities of a successful school board. Knowledge Works, a nonprofit organization, volunteered to foot the bill for the consultants.

"We believe it would be very good to have an outside organization that has the knowledge of what makes up a very good school board come to Cincinnati and address us," Friel says. "We think we should be setting some criteria for what does a good school board look like. Maybe we already got it, but we don't know that for sure."

'How do we get there?'
The previous three discussions hosted by the Citizens School Committee featured a variety of viewpoints, including Deputy School Superintendent Rosa Blackwell, Cincinnati Federation of Teachers President Sue Taylor, CPS Treasurer Mike Geoghegan, School Board President Florence Newell and Gilligan.

"We wanted to hear all opinions and we wanted to hear what everyone had to say," says Carolyn Turner, executive director of Parents for Public Schools. "Both (Bates and Williams) are respected elected officials, and we're not trying to stifle any voices. We thought it was the fair thing to do."

With four board seats becoming available at year's end, Turner says the timing was perfect for organizations to start doing research on how to improve the school system.

"Knowing that we are all mostly 501-3 organizations or other nonprofit organizations that can't specifically endorse candidates, we were talking more about focusing on qualities and what we think would make an effective school board and also coming up with ways to inform the public of what is an effective school board," Turner says. "So that's why we decided to get together and invite individuals from many community organizations to get the word out."

League of Women Voters representative Burton Roehr, one of the founding members of the committee, says she's concerned about the forums moving in too many different directions. She says she hopes the committee won't lose focus of its main objective.

"Any time you get a group of people in a room to talk about Cincinnati Public Schools, it goes in every direction," Roehr says. "Our goal is, we're working on that vision for the schools: What is an effective school district? What is an effective school, and how do we get there via the school board? What questions should we ask the candidates?"

Bonnie Kroeger, a member of the Urban Appalachian Council, says she's involved in the committee because every child deserves a high-quality education delivered by people who care. Kroeger has been defending children's rights and has acted as a "loving critic" of Cincinnati Public Schools for more than 30 years.

"They have got to change the way they are interacting with communities, parents and kids," she says. "The community needs to come together around a common vision that we want for our children and then hold everybody accountable for that. I'm on my soapbox, and I've been on my soapbox for 30 years." ©