A hotly contested race for spots on Cincinnati Public School Board has put the district’s public engagement controversies front and center again, with some candidates highlighting the issue as election day approaches.
It’s been an intense couple of years for the district. There was the 2016 fight over the Clifton Cultural Arts Center, during which CPS reclaimed a building occupied by the popular community arts center for a new neighborhood school, angering many Clifton residents in the process.
Then there was the lottery system CPS instituted in 2015 for its magnet schools, including the Fairview German Language School just across the street from the CCAC. Before the lottery, parents who didn’t already have one child attending the high-performing elementary school camped out for a first-come, first-served chance to sign up for open seats.
And there’s been the dustup over Spencer Center, a new school for talented and gifted students in Walnut Hills that CPS put next to a neighborhood school, Frederick Douglass, that serves mostly low-income students. Walnut Hills residents who send their children to school at Douglass wonder why CPS isn’t putting the talented and gifted students in with their own.
Kevin Wright and Christina Brown of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation and Kathy Adkinson, who sits on Douglass’ local school decision making committee, penned an op-ed in The Cincinnati Enquirer critical of the district’s communication and the choice to create a separate school.
“Neither the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, Walnut Hills Area Council nor other neighborhood stakeholders were privy to conversations about this decision,” they wrote.
In each case, and in other instances with big stakes on the line, CPS has gotten criticism from parents and neighborhood residents that it hasn’t effectively communicated and sought input about the decisions it’s making.
Now, as voters get ready to choose from 13 candidates for four seats on the seven-member school board, some hopefuls are saying that the district needs to change its approach to how it reaches out to parents and other residents.
“All of our plans need to be very public,” says first-time candidate David Brenner, an enterprise architect. “Right now, the public doesn’t feel like that’s the case. We need to make sure that we have everybody involved.”
The board appoints the district’s superintendent and treasurer, and is supposed to be the public face of CPS. It’s not an office that gets the citywide spotlight reserved for mayoral races or city council contests. It’s not even a full-time gig — it pays just $5,000 a year.
Board president Ericka Copeland Dansby says the district is working on getting better.
“I would give a grade of B+ to the district, and I say that because I’ve been working on this for a very long time,” says Dansby, who is seeking another term. “Where I think the district has a lot of room for improvement, is maybe more direct messaging.”
Dansby says the district has staggered meetings so they work around parents’ work schedules, ramped up its online communication efforts and created a family and community engagement team.
She acknowledges that the process in Walnut Hills could have been better.
“The community told us they wanted a gifted program,” she says. “At that time, though, the administration perhaps got a little bit ahead of board direction. We should have taken a step back, and we did.”
Dansby says in other instances, like the CCAC situation, the problem is that the public didn’t see the behind-the-scenes negotiations taking place, claiming that the district did a “tremendous amount of work” trying to come to an agreement. CCAC boosters have contested that, however.
Not everyone grades CPS so highly. At an Oct. 18 community forum for board candidates, CPS parent Rick Wolf shared his frustrations with the district’s outreach.
“It’s been regularly pointed out by a lot of incumbents that, ‘Hey, take it easy on us. This is $5,000 a year and a lot of work,’ ” he said. “And the community shouldn’t be disrespectful. But you’re asking for the job. So to hear an incumbent say, ‘What do you want? We can’t come talk to all of you.’ That’s the job you asked us for.”
First-time candidate Mike Moroski says he thinks the district rates about a C- on its engagement efforts. He’d like to see the district go directly to the community more often instead of simply holding meetings and expecting the community to come to them. He says he would also like to draft a detailed community engagement plan, including benchmarks and goals, and to work with neighborhood groups like community councils to coordinate efforts.
“(Schools and community groups) occupy the same sandbox and we can only build awesome sand castles when we accept that fact,” he says.
Other candidates give the district an even lower score.
“There need to be changes,” first-time candidate Kareem Moffett says. “It’s not working by the board’s definition and it’s not working by the community’s definition.”
Moffett’s proposal: Each of the seven board members should be assigned neighborhoods within the district.
“Then you go connect with the people at those schools,” she says. “So you’re going to community council meeting, you’re going to a football game at Carson, so that people see you. People don’t know who our board members are. That’s embarrassing. I’m not saying you have to visit all the schools, but how many have you done?”
Some incumbents agree the district still needs work.
“There’s no way we’re knocking it out of the park, but we’re not dragging our feet, either,” says board member Daniel Minera, who is seeking his second term this election. “We have to understand that we need to come down to the ground level as board members, as administrators, to have forums, to have listening sessions. It’ll require creativity, not just surveys sent home with the kids or meetings at 7 p.m.” ©
Cincinnati Public School Board Candidates:
Melanie Bates *
Ericka Copeland-Dansby * + #
Christine Fisher #
Marcia A. Futel #
Renee Hevia + #
Ryan Messer +
Daniel Minera *
Mike Moroski +
+ Democratic Party endorsed
# Charter Committee endorsed