Despite Good Intentions, CPS Becomes Easy Target

To borrow a phrase from Richard Nixon, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not a fan of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST). But they might have a point in the latest local election controversy about 31 students being d

To borrow a phrase from Richard Nixon, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not a fan of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST).

Generally, I think the group's worldview is too simplistic and its leaders are more concerned with dismantling government rather than helping it run more efficiently. Make no mistake, COAST also doesn't like current spending and taxes or, really, probably any spending and taxes except for national defense.

Two previous incidents involving COAST leaders especially stick out in my mind.

The first involved Tom Brinkman Jr., the Mount Lookout resident who used to be a state representative. Back in 2003, Brinkman was the only member of the Ohio General Assembly to vote against the state's long-delayed ratification of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Passed by Congress in 1868, the 14th Amendment gave due process and equal protection rights to black citizens, including recently freed slaves. It was part of a series of Reconstruction efforts and aimed at overturning the Supreme Court decision in the infamous Dred Scott case of 1857, which held that blacks weren't citizens and aren't entitled to rights. Ohio lawmakers had rescinded the amendment in 1868, stating it was "contrary to the best interests of the white race.” No one had ever bothered to undo the embarrassing action in the subsequent century.

At the time, Brinkman said he voted against the amendment's ratification because it had been misapplied and used to expand federal powers over the authority that should be vested in individual states. In his mind, it was this amendment that led to the legalization of abortion nationwide after a 1973 Supreme Court decision.

That seems like a stretch but, even if true, coming out against full citizenship for an entire class of people seems wrong-headed. Surely, reaffirming those rights trump any procedural concerns. Regardless, Brinkman knew his symbolic vote wouldn't settle the matter that bothered him.

The other noteworthy action by a COAST leader happened even earlier. In the early 1990s, while testifying in a court case that sought to overturn Cincinnati’s human rights ordinance, conservative activist Chris Finney said landlords shouldn’t be forced to rent to gays or lesbians if they didn’t want to and employers shouldn’t have to hire them.

Then, Finney went even further: Restaurants shouldn’t be forced to serve gay couples if other customers are disturbed by their presence.

Such a comment is hateful and mean-spirited. What if I own a restaurant and don't like the way Christians pray before eating or believe Jewish people to be dirty and don't want to serve them? Would it be acceptable to deny them service? According to folks like Finney and another COAST darling, Rand Paul, it would be perfectly fine. I don't know about you, but I don't want to live in a society like that.

Although I often disagree with COAST's positions, that doesn't automatically make it wrong in every instance.

All of which brings us around to the current controversy about 31 students being driven from Hughes High School to the Board of Elections Oct. 13, during school hours, to participate in early voting. When the students disembarked from vans, they were spotted by a campaign worker for Brinkman, who alleged they were wearing stickers promoting Congressman Steve Driehaus, a Democratic incumbent up for reelection, and holding green Democratic sample ballots.

Once notified, Finney believed the actions likely violated a 2002 consent agreement that COAST had reached with Cincinnati Public Schools.

Back then, some teachers were campaigning for a school levy in classrooms and posting campaign literature in school buildings, all of which are funded by taxpayer dollars. After COAST filed a lawsuit seeking equal access to the facilities, CPS crafted a policy that prevents the district's workers or property from being used for the "promulgation and distribution of printed and electronic messages advocating the election or defeat of candidates for public office."

Upon learning about the recent voting incident, Finney filed for and received a court injunction, preventing the school district from taking more students to the Board of Elections.

Finney told The Enquirer that CPS had engaged in “one-sided political activity” by providing sample ballots.

District officials said the trip might have lacked proper oversight but denied there was an intent to sway votes. Also, CPS suspended Hughes Principal Virginia Rhodes for two weeks with pay and scheduled a Nov. 3 disciplinary hearing for social studies teacher Dennis McFadden, who arranged the trip.

It appears the students weren't transported on district-owned buses but rather on three vehicles owned by an area church. The excursion was coordinated by Gwen Robinson, an ex-CPS principal. Contrary to conspiracy theories, however, it is not the same Gwen Robinson who is president of the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency, just a person with the same name.

Rhodes categorically denies students were given stickers or sample ballots: “I've talked to the teacher, and they were handed the ballots as they got off the vehicle by workers who already were there. (The teacher) handed out no literature, much less partisan literature. And he didn't authorize anyone else to hand out literature.”

Students have routinely been taken on field trips to vote at the Board of Elections for years, Rhodes said. In the past, a company donated tokens so students could use Metro buses. When that didn't happen this year due to the recession, teachers scrambled to find alternative means of transportation, eventually settling on donated church vans.

“This is an annual trip,” Rhodes said. “We make a big deal about students being participatory in our society, and not passive. We were caught short on transportation and I didn't want to cancel the trip. I think it's an important trip for our students.”

In truth, the controversy looks to be the result of confusion caused by last-minute changes. When conservatives learned that Rhodes and someone named Gwen Robinson were involved, their imaginations ran wild with elaborate visions of conspiracy.

Make no mistake: Area conservatives loath Rhodes. A former Board of Education member, she ran unsuccessfully against Republican Joe Deters in the late 1980s to replace him as Clerk of Courts. Deters — now the county prosecutor — was reelected after a hard-fought campaign in which Rhodes accused him of coercing contributions from courthouse employees and requiring them to volunteer at least eight hours on his campaign.

As if that's not enough reason to make the blood of right-wingers boil, she also was the first wife of Tom Mooney, the longtime head of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers.

Rhodes thinks COAST saw an opportunity for publicity and jumped for it. “Anybody can sue, anybody can make any allegations they want,” she said. “It makes for a great story. It just happens not to be true.”

Still, a few overly zealous CPS supporters and bloggers have leapt to the school district's defense, insisting that COAST's action amounts to “voter suppression.” What utter tripe.

Rather than treading into murky legal territory by using donated vans during school hours and having sample ballots handed to students, it would be better if teachers merely registered their eligible students to vote, then given them information on how to do so later on their own.

For her part, Rhodes is keeping busy during her suspension, operating out of a makeshift office at Rohs Street Cafe in Clifton Heights, across from Hughes.

“I am busy at work all day,” she said. “I am close by and accessible to staff. Life goes on.”

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