Cover Story: 'I'm the Kind of Guy Who Plans for Things to Get Better'

What a change! Cincinnati Public Schools superintendent is optimistic

 
Matt Borgerding


Superintendent Alton Frailey visits several schools a week. Raised in rural poverty, he says the urban version is much more destructive.



Alton Frailey is late, but you'd never know it by watching him. It's 1:04 p.m. April 24. The new Cincinnati Public Schools superintendent's 1 p.m. Budget Commission meeting at the school board's office in Mount Auburn is already underway, without him.

Frailey has just toured Porter Elementary School in the West End and Fairview Elementary School in Clifton Heights. Standing by his tan 2002 GMC Envoy sport utility vehicle, he calmly takes off his sport coat and lays it on the back seat to avoid wrinkling it.

Frailey knows how to get back to Cincinnati Public Schools headquarters, but not the shortest way. Heading west on Liberty Street, he misses a turn that could save him a couple of minutes with a shortcut through Mount Auburn.

Many people would be frustrated or at least show a bit of stress.

But the 6-foot tall, stocky, crisply dressed Frailey takes it in stride.

"That's good," he says. "That's good. That's all right. I'm going back to what I know. A comfort zone — like Cincinnati. I only know this way!"

He chuckles at poking fun at Cincinnati's attraction to the status quo.

'Use our stuff'
Frailey didn't eat lunch today. He often doesn't, according to his assistant, Linda Basler. His schedule, printed on an 8 1/2-by-11-inch piece of paper, is non-stop, with one event bleeding into the next. Sometimes his schedule bleeds off the paper: Two nights ago he was up until 3 a.m. writing an opinion piece for a local newspaper. Workdays of 10 to 12 hours or more are the norm.

Frailey is trying to convince voters to support a $480 million, 4.61-mill bond issue. The property tax hike, which would be used for improving facilities, failed by less than 1 percent of the vote last November. The former Spring Branch, Texas, school superintendent is dealing with a teacher's union and a major media environment for the first time. He's also in a city with no shortage of public school critics.

Even so, Frailey never rushes about. He steadily strolls through school hallways, paying attention to whom he's talking to, asking questions and getting a feel for the place — at least as well as he can in a 30- to 60-minute visit. He tours a few schools every week and plans to continue until he sees all of them.

Frailey arrives at the Cincinnati Board of Education office for the budget meeting about 1:20 p.m. School District Treasurer Mike Geoghegan quietly mentions that he had put Frailey at the top of the agenda. After a brief apology, Frailey walks to the head of the rectangle of tables and gets down to business.

"We're at risk of losing $14 million if the state does what they're threatening to do," he says.

School funding in Ohio is partly based on a three-year average attendance sampled each October. The Ohio House of Representatives' budget bill, HB 95, switches to an annual average in 2003-2004 and a daily average for 2004-2005, a move that will hurt Cincinnati and other districts with children who move a lot.

The Ohio Senate and Gov. Bob Taft haven't yet had their say on the bill. But the legislature has already cut $100 million from public schools — including $2.24 million for Cincinnati — to balance the state budget ending in June. So Frailey says he wants the district's budget frozen.

"Nothing I look at should be beyond $437 (million)," he says. "We've got to start doing what's most essential, most critical."

Frailey stays on his feet at the end of the tables. He leans on his hands one minute, then gestures with them the next. Everyone on the 19-member budget commission — comprised of school administrators, union representatives and parents — is listening. Frailey expanded the commission from 14 members to include school principals, more union leaders and parents.

In Spring Branch, 80 percent of the students passed the state's proficiency tests. In Cincinnati Public Schools, the number is below 50 percent, at best, he says.

"We're a city who hopes things will get better," he says. "I'm the kind of guy who plans for things to get better."

The schools' product is not the students, Frailey says.

"Our product is our curriculum," he says. "Our core business is teaching and learning."

The message, according to Frailey, should be, "If you use our stuff, you will graduate."

A few years of fast-paced reform by his predecessor, former Superintendent Steve Adamowski, left the school district's curriculum inconsistent from school to school, Frailey believes.

Cincinnati has four schools in the state's highest-rated category and four in the lowest category. That shouldn't happen, according to Frailey.

After speaking for about 20 minutes, he leaves the meeting and heads back to his office. This was by far his most effective presentation of the past couple of days — clear, focused and with a touch of humor.

"I don't think you could have set the tone better," Geoghegan says.

During other meetings, Frailey's jokes fell a bit flat and his quick speaking was sometimes difficult to hear.

'How things work'
Frailey is an optimistic man, particularly on the bond issue vote scheduled for Tuesday.

The school district is asking voters to support a tax levy to pay for 35 new schools and 31 school rehabs over the next 10 years. It's a $985 million project with state matching funds, stadium sales-tax payments and other revenue sources.

If the tax hike wins approval, the owner of a $100,000 home will pay $135 a year in new taxes.

Most school supporters would be overjoyed to see a Cincinnati Public Schools operating levy or bond issue pass with 60 percent approval. Not Frailey. It would be a "crime and a loss" to have less than 75 percent of voters support the bond issue, he says.

"But I'll take 74," he says.

Tuesday, the date of the election, is Frailey's birthday.

Of Ohio's so-called Big Eight urban school districts, only Cincinnati and Akron voters haven't approved facilities bond issues in order to get varying amounts of state matching dollars. In Cincinnati's case, the state match is more than $200 million.

"We need this more than anything else we've needed before in the school district," Frailey says.

During his first six months in Cincinnati, Frailey has spent a lot of his time meeting people and learning how the school district works — and doesn't work.

Supporters speak well of Frailey. He's better one-on-one than Adamowski was, they say. He's established connections to the community. He's been a very good listener they say.

"I can sum up by saying that a wise man knows what he doesn't know," says school board member Catherine Ingram.

"He walks the talk," says Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers.

"My impression of him is that he's an extremely intelligent and thoughtful man," says Eileen Cooper-Reed, director of the Ohio Children's Defense Fund. "He thinks in terms of systems and how things work."

Frailey says he's met two kinds of people in Cincinnati. The first tells him what's wrong with the school district and how to fix it. The second asks his opinion and offers to help. The latter is the kind Frailey wants to work with. Those are the people who can help him focus on educating children.

"I can tell within 30 seconds if the phone call is about children and education," he says.

Frailey grew up in a three-room house with six sisters and a brother in North Redland, Texas. The family had no indoor plumbing until he was in the eighth grade.

When Frailey began kindergarten, his school district was racially segregated. African-American pupils in first through eighth grades went to school in a two-room building.

Frailey wasn't always focused on education. He switched majors a couple of times at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, in the 1980s. He tried business and communications but didn't feel comfortable in either field, especially with the yuppie pretentiousness of 1980s business students.

During high school and at summer camps, he worked with kids as a counselor. His sister became a teacher. A close family friend was in the same field. Other friends were in education, as well.

"I got in there with a bunch of women and thought, 'This is the place to be,' " Frailey says.

He worked his way up through Texas schools to become superintendent of the Spring Branch School District, a suburban system outside Houston. There is no teachers union there, and the media attention he's getting here is many times the amount he had in Texas. Most of the spotlight there was on Houston's district, and most of it wasn't flattering.

Frailey says he's willing to work with reporters, unless they burn him with unnecessarily dramatic or inaccurate stories.

"If the media decides they want to play games and sensationalize everything, I don't have time for that," he says. "(Sensational coverage) forces you into a sameness which, in time, becomes mediocre."

'No shared vision'
Frailey has learned a few things about Cincinnati in his first six months here.

"There is no universal unity or shared vision about public education," he says.

It seems only suburban residents of Greater Cincinnati have committed to supporting schools, according to Frailey. In Texas, it's a surprise when a levy fails, he says. The opposite is true in Ohio.

Frailey worked on four levy campaigns in Texas, for a total of $768 million. One tax hike passed with 85 percent of the vote, he says.

"There's a desire (to do better here)," he says. "I don't know if there's a will."

So why did he come to Cincinnati?

"It wasn't really one thing," Frailey says. "It was several things."

Money wasn't of them. The higher cost of living here pretty much wipes out any raise he received.

"I'm coming here primarily to serve the children of this city," he says. "It sounds a little storybook-ish, but that's the fact."

After Adamowski resigned, the school district's paperless — and therefore secret — selection process attracted a lawsuit from The Cincinnati Enquirer. Frailey says he wouldn't have considered the job if his name had to be publicly revealed during the selection process.

"If this became a public thing, the folks I'm working with (in Texas) would say, 'He's trying to leave us,' " he says.

Of course, that's exactly what he was doing. But Frailey says he wasn't looking for a job; a recruitment firm hired by the school board found him.

A lot of poor Cincinnati residents have a high degree of desperation and hopelessness, according to Frailey. Everyone was poor in the rural setting where he grew up. But it's tougher to be urban and poor, because rich people can be seen all around.

"There's a bitter resentment there," he says. "For some, it's justification to quit (trying)."

People in this state of mind don't always follow a logical path, he says.

Although accusations have surfaced about grade inflation at Walnut Hills High School and Jan Leslie, the school district's communications director, recently resigned, Frailey's leadership skills haven't yet really been tested. That's likely to happen when he negotiates a new contract with the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (CFT) before the end of the year.

A year ago 96 percent of CFT members rejected a key vote concerning a merit-based pay program, the Teacher Evaluation System (TES). The vote would have green-lighted Adamowski's proposal tying teacher pay to student performance. Cincinnati would have been one of the first districts in the nation to adopt such a system completely.

When asked, Frailey echoed CFT's concerns about the lack of training, then added a disclaimer.

"That's what I was told," he says. "Now is that fact? I don't know."

Frailey says his first goal with TES is getting all the teachers on the same page.

"My main focus is to make sure that our curriculum instruction program is tightened up," he says.

The district's magnet schools have warped the playing field by giving some teachers students who are easier to teach — and therefore a better chance at higher pay, according to Frailey.

"(TES) is important to me," he says. "It is not my main priority right now. We will get there. I think it will be easier to sell when folks feel there is a level playing field and feel they ... have a chance to be successful."

Cincinnati students are being affected by curriculum that varies too much from school to school, Frailey says.

"The test scores we're getting — which are not as good as they could be, considering the talent in this district — are an indication of fragmentation," he says.

'Shame on you'
Only one thing will silence critics of the Cincinnati Public Schools and convert undecided voters into supporters — better student performance. The district has improved in recent years, but not to a point worthy of putting the numbers on campaign material.

Unfortunately, Frailey has less than a week to dramatically improve test scores. So he has to make his case for the $480 million bond issue on other points. He seems to have picked up on some long-held grudges among voters.

"To those who would use the vote to retaliate for something that happened 50 years ago — shame on you," Frailey said at an after-school awards ceremony at Parham Elementary School. "Shame on you."

This might work on some of the undecided voters. They also might consider a recent study by the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce predicting a $2.35 billion impact on the local economy if the bond issue passes. Or maybe they'll listen to the "It's for the children" pitches sure to hit the airwaves before Tuesday.

But none of this will sway critics such as State Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr. (R-Mount Washington). He sees a school system that isn't teaching its students and is spending a lot of money on teachers — and, if the tax levy passes, new buildings.

"It's just ridiculous how much (the Cincinnati School District spends) per kid," Brinkman says.

He figures the total at $10,500 per pupil. Geoghegan doesn't count certain debt payments and says it's closer to $9,983. The Ohio average is $9,760 per pupil.

School Board member Sally Warner and others speak of Brinkman as if he were a member of a fringe militia, but he's been elected to the Statehouse twice — the first time against his own party's wishes — and has organized successful anti-tax campaigns with the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST).

Warner also complains Brinkman never criticizes other school levy campaigns. Brinkman says that's because he pledged to his supporters that he would stick to the four districts with schools in his East Side district.

Brinkman doesn't deal much in nuances. You've heard of "yes men." He's a "no man." COAST has never endorsed a tax increase of any kind.

Brinkman says 60 percent of Cincinnati Public School students don't graduate. That might have been the case a few years ago but not today, Warner says. Now the rate is more like 40 percent. Students who move between their freshman and senior years and students who graduate in five years aren't counted as graduates, Warner says.

Brinkman, who has two kids in parochial schools, compares Cincinnati Public Schools' performance to private schools. But parochial schools have parents with the resources and will to spend thousands of dollars on their children's education.

"I also support vouchers," Brinkman says.

What about public school districts?

"It's obvious Mariemont and Forest Hills (in Anderson Township) are doing a good job," he says.

But those districts have demographics completely different from Cincinnati. When pressed, Brinkman admits the district is working with a different world compared to suburban school districts. About two-thirds of Cincinnati students qualify for free or reduced lunches, a key measure of poverty, according to Geoghegan.

It's not that poorer people are stupid, but their lives are subject to more disruption than wealthier students.

It doesn't help that Ohio has one of the least equal funding systems for public schools (see "Unfair and Unchanged," issue of Jan. 22-28, 2003).

Brinkman's solution for Cincinnati's woes is to break it up into four districts of maybe 8,000 to 10,000 students each.

People of all political persuasions probably agree that the Cincinnati Public Schools' biggest handicap is a lack of parents, Brinkman says. He doesn't mean parental involvement — simply the number of parents.

"But the problem is, now that we agreed to that, what do you do about it?" Brinkman says.

Spending more money on schools won't close the achievement gap, he says.

"But I don't think it's fillable with money," he says. "I really don't."

'Let's move on'
Frailey believes schools' influence can trump the lack of parents.

"My attitude and my belief is that schools control enough of the variables to overcome a child's living conditions," he says. "That's the norm. That's the standard. Are there exceptions? Yes."

Some people believe schools shouldn't teach values. Frailey strongly disagrees.

"You can't have a school not teaching values, practicing values," he says. "So what are those values? There are certain things we all can agree on. One is you don't harm one another."

People also shouldn't steal, should work hard and should respect each other, to name a few, Frailey says.

Brinkman squarely blames the school district for the condition of its school buildings. But he forgets Ohio's schools ranked dead last among all 50 states in a 1996 U.S. General Accounting Office report. That was the embarrassment that led to the wave of school building in Ohio now.

Cincinnati Public Schools have a four-phase building plan. COAST wants the district to do the first of the four phases — the first 17 schools — to prove it can handle the projects responsibly. Then the school district can go back to the voters for money, Brinkman says. The school district already has enough cash to pay for the first phase, which should cost about $270 million.

"Prove to us you can do phase one right," Brinkman says.

But the Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC), the agency partnering with local districts on their building plans, doesn't want Cincinnati to begin the whole project until it's all funded.

"We'd really like the see the (bond issue) pass so that we know we're going to have the funding for all four of the segments," says Rick Savors, OSFC spokesman.

Brinkman might already have some of his wish. Cincinnati Public Schools are moving ahead with some of the first phase, according to Harriet Russell, chair of the school board's facilities committee. Most of the work going on now is hiring architects, acquiring land and other pre-construction activity.

Russell said the vote on the bond issue will have a much larger effect on the timing of the second phase.

"It is difficult for me to see how the vote could significantly change segment one," she said.

The prospect of Cincinnati losing the $200 million state match doesn't move Brinkman. He still believes the higher property tax is unjustified because of the school district's performance.

Supporters have been hinting this could be the district's last chance for matching dollars for the project because of the state's budget problems. However, Savors says the state should have enough to pay for buildings in all of Ohio's school districts.

The OSFC's contract with Cincinnati Public Schools for the building project expires in August. Savors isn't sure how the OSFC would deal with that if the bond issue fails.

"I'm afraid I don't have a good answer for you," he says. "This would be new ground for us."

Levy supporters shouldn't worry about people such as Brinkman, according to Craig Maier, chief executive officer of Frisch's Restaurants and chair of an education committee of the Cincinnati Business Committee.

"You can't make these people happy," Maier says. "So there goes 20 or 30 percent (of the vote). Let's move on — and that's what we have done."

Philosophy aside, Brinkman understands as well as anyone that this bond issue will be decided at the polls. It comes down to one question.

"Who's going to get their people out?" Brinkman says.



The CINCINNATI PUBLIC SCHOOLS' BOND ISSUE is on the city ballot Tuesday. For details of the four-phase building plan, see

 
Matt Borgerding


Superintendent Alton Frailey visits several schools a week. Raised in rural poverty, he says the urban version is much more destructive.



Alton Frailey is late, but you'd never know it by watching him. It's 1:04 p.m. April 24. The new Cincinnati Public Schools superintendent's 1 p.m. Budget Commission meeting at the school board's office in Mount Auburn is already underway, without him.

Frailey has just toured Porter Elementary School in the West End and Fairview Elementary School in Clifton Heights. Standing by his tan 2002 GMC Envoy sport utility vehicle, he calmly takes off his sport coat and lays it on the back seat to avoid wrinkling it.

Frailey knows how to get back to Cincinnati Public Schools headquarters, but not the shortest way. Heading west on Liberty Street, he misses a turn that could save him a couple of minutes with a shortcut through Mount Auburn.

Many people would be frustrated or at least show a bit of stress.

But the 6-foot tall, stocky, crisply dressed Frailey takes it in stride.

"That's good," he says. "That's good. That's all right. I'm going back to what I know. A comfort zone — like Cincinnati. I only know this way!"

He chuckles at poking fun at Cincinnati's attraction to the status quo.

'Use our stuff'
Frailey didn't eat lunch today. He often doesn't, according to his assistant, Linda Basler. His schedule, printed on an 8 1/2-by-11-inch piece of paper, is non-stop, with one event bleeding into the next. Sometimes his schedule bleeds off the paper: Two nights ago he was up until 3 a.m. writing an opinion piece for a local newspaper. Workdays of 10 to 12 hours or more are the norm.

Frailey is trying to convince voters to support a $480 million, 4.61-mill bond issue. The property tax hike, which would be used for improving facilities, failed by less than 1 percent of the vote last November. The former Spring Branch, Texas, school superintendent is dealing with a teacher's union and a major media environment for the first time. He's also in a city with no shortage of public school critics.

Even so, Frailey never rushes about. He steadily strolls through school hallways, paying attention to whom he's talking to, asking questions and getting a feel for the place — at least as well as he can in a 30- to 60-minute visit. He tours a few schools every week and plans to continue until he sees all of them.

Frailey arrives at the Cincinnati Board of Education office for the budget meeting about 1:20 p.m. School District Treasurer Mike Geoghegan quietly mentions that he had put Frailey at the top of the agenda. After a brief apology, Frailey walks to the head of the rectangle of tables and gets down to business.

"We're at risk of losing $14 million if the state does what they're threatening to do," he says.

School funding in Ohio is partly based on a three-year average attendance sampled each October. The Ohio House of Representatives' budget bill, HB 95, switches to an annual average in 2003-2004 and a daily average for 2004-2005, a move that will hurt Cincinnati and other districts with children who move a lot.

The Ohio Senate and Gov. Bob Taft haven't yet had their say on the bill. But the legislature has already cut $100 million from public schools — including $2.24 million for Cincinnati — to balance the state budget ending in June. So Frailey says he wants the district's budget frozen.

"Nothing I look at should be beyond $437 (million)," he says. "We've got to start doing what's most essential, most critical."

Frailey stays on his feet at the end of the tables. He leans on his hands one minute, then gestures with them the next. Everyone on the 19-member budget commission — comprised of school administrators, union representatives and parents — is listening. Frailey expanded the commission from 14 members to include school principals, more union leaders and parents.

In Spring Branch, 80 percent of the students passed the state's proficiency tests. In Cincinnati Public Schools, the number is below 50 percent, at best, he says.

"We're a city who hopes things will get better," he says. "I'm the kind of guy who plans for things to get better."

The schools' product is not the students, Frailey says.

"Our product is our curriculum," he says. "Our core business is teaching and learning."

The message, according to Frailey, should be, "If you use our stuff, you will graduate."

A few years of fast-paced reform by his predecessor, former Superintendent Steve Adamowski, left the school district's curriculum inconsistent from school to school, Frailey believes.

Cincinnati has four schools in the state's highest-rated category and four in the lowest category. That shouldn't happen, according to Frailey.

After speaking for about 20 minutes, he leaves the meeting and heads back to his office. This was by far his most effective presentation of the past couple of days — clear, focused and with a touch of humor.

"I don't think you could have set the tone better," Geoghegan says.

During other meetings, Frailey's jokes fell a bit flat and his quick speaking was sometimes difficult to hear.

'How things work'
Frailey is an optimistic man, particularly on the bond issue vote scheduled for Tuesday.

The school district is asking voters to support a tax levy to pay for 35 new schools and 31 school rehabs over the next 10 years. It's a $985 million project with state matching funds, stadium sales-tax payments and other revenue sources.

If the tax hike wins approval, the owner of a $100,000 home will pay $135 a year in new taxes.

Most school supporters would be overjoyed to see a Cincinnati Public Schools operating levy or bond issue pass with 60 percent approval. Not Frailey. It would be a "crime and a loss" to have less than 75 percent of voters support the bond issue, he says.

"But I'll take 74," he says.

Tuesday, the date of the election, is Frailey's birthday.

Of Ohio's so-called Big Eight urban school districts, only Cincinnati and Akron voters haven't approved facilities bond issues in order to get varying amounts of state matching dollars. In Cincinnati's case, the state match is more than $200 million.

"We need this more than anything else we've needed before in the school district," Frailey says.

During his first six months in Cincinnati, Frailey has spent a lot of his time meeting people and learning how the school district works — and doesn't work.

Supporters speak well of Frailey. He's better one-on-one than Adamowski was, they say. He's established connections to the community. He's been a very good listener they say.

"I can sum up by saying that a wise man knows what he doesn't know," says school board member Catherine Ingram.

"He walks the talk," says Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers.

"My impression of him is that he's an extremely intelligent and thoughtful man," says Eileen Cooper-Reed, director of the Ohio Children's Defense Fund. "He thinks in terms of systems and how things work."

Frailey says he's met two kinds of people in Cincinnati. The first tells him what's wrong with the school district and how to fix it. The second asks his opinion and offers to help. The latter is the kind Frailey wants to work with. Those are the people who can help him focus on educating children.

"I can tell within 30 seconds if the phone call is about children and education," he says.

Frailey grew up in a three-room house with six sisters and a brother in North Redland, Texas. The family had no indoor plumbing until he was in the eighth grade.

When Frailey began kindergarten, his school district was racially segregated. African-American pupils in first through eighth grades went to school in a two-room building.

Frailey wasn't always focused on education. He switched majors a couple of times at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, in the 1980s. He tried business and communications but didn't feel comfortable in either field, especially with the yuppie pretentiousness of 1980s business students.

During high school and at summer camps, he worked with kids as a counselor. His sister became a teacher. A close family friend was in the same field. Other friends were in education, as well.

"I got in there with a bunch of women and thought, 'This is the place to be,' " Frailey says.

He worked his way up through Texas schools to become superintendent of the Spring Branch School District, a suburban system outside Houston. There is no teachers union there, and the media attention he's getting here is many times the amount he had in Texas. Most of the spotlight there was on Houston's district, and most of it wasn't flattering.

Frailey says he's willing to work with reporters, unless they burn him with unnecessarily dramatic or inaccurate stories.

"If the media decides they want to play games and sensationalize everything, I don't have time for that," he says. "(Sensational coverage) forces you into a sameness which, in time, becomes mediocre."

'No shared vision'
Frailey has learned a few things about Cincinnati in his first six months here.

"There is no universal unity or shared vision about public education," he says.

It seems only suburban residents of Greater Cincinnati have committed to supporting schools, according to Frailey. In Texas, it's a surprise when a levy fails, he says. The opposite is true in Ohio.

Frailey worked on four levy campaigns in Texas, for a total of $768 million. One tax hike passed with 85 percent of the vote, he says.

"There's a desire (to do better here)," he says. "I don't know if there's a will."

So why did he come to Cincinnati?

"It wasn't really one thing," Frailey says. "It was several things."

Money wasn't of them. The higher cost of living here pretty much wipes out any raise he received.

"I'm coming here primarily to serve the children of this city," he says. "It sounds a little storybook-ish, but that's the fact."

After Adamowski resigned, the school district's paperless — and therefore secret — selection process attracted a lawsuit from The Cincinnati Enquirer. Frailey says he wouldn't have considered the job if his name had to be publicly revealed during the selection process.

"If this became a public thing, the folks I'm working with (in Texas) would say, 'He's trying to leave us,' " he says.

Of course, that's exactly what he was doing. But Frailey says he wasn't looking for a job; a recruitment firm hired by the school board found him.

A lot of poor Cincinnati residents have a high degree of desperation and hopelessness, according to Frailey. Everyone was poor in the rural setting where he grew up. But it's tougher to be urban and poor, because rich people can be seen all around.

"There's a bitter resentment there," he says. "For some, it's justification to quit (trying)."

People in this state of mind don't always follow a logical path, he says.

Although accusations have surfaced about grade inflation at Walnut Hills High School and Jan Leslie, the school district's communications director, recently resigned, Frailey's leadership skills haven't yet really been tested. That's likely to happen when he negotiates a new contract with the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (CFT) before the end of the year.

A year ago 96 percent of CFT members rejected a key vote concerning a merit-based pay program, the Teacher Evaluation System (TES). The vote would have green-lighted Adamowski's proposal tying teacher pay to student performance. Cincinnati would have been one of the first districts in the nation to adopt such a system completely.

When asked, Frailey echoed CFT's concerns about the lack of training, then added a disclaimer.

"That's what I was told," he says. "Now is that fact? I don't know."

Frailey says his first goal with TES is getting all the teachers on the same page.

"My main focus is to make sure that our curriculum instruction program is tightened up," he says.

The district's magnet schools have warped the playing field by giving some teachers students who are easier to teach — and therefore a better chance at higher pay, according to Frailey.

"(TES) is important to me," he says. "It is not my main priority right now. We will get there. I think it will be easier to sell when folks feel there is a level playing field and feel they ... have a chance to be successful."

Cincinnati students are being affected by curriculum that varies too much from school to school, Frailey says.

"The test scores we're getting — which are not as good as they could be, considering the talent in this district — are an indication of fragmentation," he says.

'Shame on you'
Only one thing will silence critics of the Cincinnati Public Schools and convert undecided voters into supporters — better student performance. The district has improved in recent years, but not to a point worthy of putting the numbers on campaign material.

Unfortunately, Frailey has less than a week to dramatically improve test scores. So he has to make his case for the $480 million bond issue on other points. He seems to have picked up on some long-held grudges among voters.

"To those who would use the vote to retaliate for something that happened 50 years ago — shame on you," Frailey said at an after-school awards ceremony at Parham Elementary School. "Shame on you."

This might work on some of the undecided voters. They also might consider a recent study by the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce predicting a $2.35 billion impact on the local economy if the bond issue passes. Or maybe they'll listen to the "It's for the children" pitches sure to hit the airwaves before Tuesday.

But none of this will sway critics such as State Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr. (R-Mount Washington). He sees a school system that isn't teaching its students and is spending a lot of money on teachers — and, if the tax levy passes, new buildings.

"It's just ridiculous how much (the Cincinnati School District spends) per kid," Brinkman says.

He figures the total at $10,500 per pupil. Geoghegan doesn't count certain debt payments and says it's closer to $9,983. The Ohio average is $9,760 per pupil.

School Board member Sally Warner and others speak of Brinkman as if he were a member of a fringe militia, but he's been elected to the Statehouse twice — the first time against his own party's wishes — and has organized successful anti-tax campaigns with the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST).

Warner also complains Brinkman never criticizes other school levy campaigns. Brinkman says that's because he pledged to his supporters that he would stick to the four districts with schools in his East Side district.

Brinkman doesn't deal much in nuances. You've heard of "yes men." He's a "no man." COAST has never endorsed a tax increase of any kind.

Brinkman says 60 percent of Cincinnati Public School students don't graduate. That might have been the case a few years ago but not today, Warner says. Now the rate is more like 40 percent. Students who move between their freshman and senior years and students who graduate in five years aren't counted as graduates, Warner says.

Brinkman, who has two kids in parochial schools, compares Cincinnati Public Schools' performance to private schools. But parochial schools have parents with the resources and will to spend thousands of dollars on their children's education.

"I also support vouchers," Brinkman says.

What about public school districts?

"It's obvious Mariemont and Forest Hills (in Anderson Township) are doing a good job," he says.

But those districts have demographics completely different from Cincinnati. When pressed, Brinkman admits the district is working with a different world compared to suburban school districts. About two-thirds of Cincinnati students qualify for free or reduced lunches, a key measure of poverty, according to Geoghegan.

It's not that poorer people are stupid, but their lives are subject to more disruption than wealthier students.

It doesn't help that Ohio has one of the least equal funding systems for public schools (see "Unfair and Unchanged," issue of Jan. 22-28, 2003).

Brinkman's solution for Cincinnati's woes is to break it up into four districts of maybe 8,000 to 10,000 students each.

People of all political persuasions probably agree that the Cincinnati Public Schools' biggest handicap is a lack of parents, Brinkman says. He doesn't mean parental involvement — simply the number of parents.

"But the problem is, now that we agreed to that, what do you do about it?" Brinkman says.

Spending more money on schools won't close the achievement gap, he says.

"But I don't think it's fillable with money," he says. "I really don't."

'Let's move on'
Frailey believes schools' influence can trump the lack of parents.

"My attitude and my belief is that schools control enough of the variables to overcome a child's living conditions," he says. "That's the norm. That's the standard. Are there exceptions? Yes."

Some people believe schools shouldn't teach values. Frailey strongly disagrees.

"You can't have a school not teaching values, practicing values," he says. "So what are those values? There are certain things we all can agree on. One is you don't harm one another."

People also shouldn't steal, should work hard and should respect each other, to name a few, Frailey says.

Brinkman squarely blames the school district for the condition of its school buildings. But he forgets Ohio's schools ranked dead last among all 50 states in a 1996 U.S. General Accounting Office report. That was the embarrassment that led to the wave of school building in Ohio now.

Cincinnati Public Schools have a four-phase building plan. COAST wants the district to do the first of the four phases — the first 17 schools — to prove it can handle the projects responsibly. Then the school district can go back to the voters for money, Brinkman says. The school district already has enough cash to pay for the first phase, which should cost about $270 million.

"Prove to us you can do phase one right," Brinkman says.

But the Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC), the agency partnering with local districts on their building plans, doesn't want Cincinnati to begin the whole project until it's all funded.

"We'd really like the see the (bond issue) pass so that we know we're going to have the funding for all four of the segments," says Rick Savors, OSFC spokesman.

Brinkman might already have some of his wish. Cincinnati Public Schools are moving ahead with some of the first phase, according to Harriet Russell, chair of the school board's facilities committee. Most of the work going on now is hiring architects, acquiring land and other pre-construction activity.

Russell said the vote on the bond issue will have a much larger effect on the timing of the second phase.

"It is difficult for me to see how the vote could significantly change segment one," she said.

The prospect of Cincinnati losing the $200 million state match doesn't move Brinkman. He still believes the higher property tax is unjustified because of the school district's performance.

Supporters have been hinting this could be the district's last chance for matching dollars for the project because of the state's budget problems. However, Savors says the state should have enough to pay for buildings in all of Ohio's school districts.

The OSFC's contract with Cincinnati Public Schools for the building project expires in August. Savors isn't sure how the OSFC would deal with that if the bond issue fails.

"I'm afraid I don't have a good answer for you," he says. "This would be new ground for us."

Levy supporters shouldn't worry about people such as Brinkman, according to Craig Maier, chief executive officer of Frisch's Restaurants and chair of an education committee of the Cincinnati Business Committee.

"You can't make these people happy," Maier says. "So there goes 20 or 30 percent (of the vote). Let's move on — and that's what we have done."

Philosophy aside, Brinkman understands as well as anyone that this bond issue will be decided at the polls. It comes down to one question.

"Who's going to get their people out?" Brinkman says.



The CINCINNATI PUBLIC SCHOOLS' BOND ISSUE is on the city ballot Tuesday. For details of the four-phase building plan, see www.cps-k12.org.

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