Presented with a choice of 12 candidates vying for four seats on the Cincinnati Board of Education, voters Tuesday chose to return all three incumbent candidates.
The fourth open seat went to first-time candidate Vanessa White, a Charterite.
In returning incumbents Melanie Bates and Eileen Cooper Reed, fellow Charterites, the Charter Committee — Cincinnati’s de facto third political party — was the big winner in the school board race.
By aligning with the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers and other unions to endorse a four-person slate, the Hamilton County Democratic Party had seemed hopeful to install a voting bloc similar to the five-member majority that’s prevailed on Cincinnati City Council for the past two years.
Consciously or not, voters declined that offer in the school board race as well as in the council race.
Both Bates and Reed had approached the local Democratic Party for endorsements but were turned away because of their votes against implementing “prevailing wage” — better pay and benefits — for workers on Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) construction projects.
Though White has demonstrated support for prevailing wage in past media interviews, she declined to discuss it on Election Night.
“I’m not doing controversy tonight,” White said, who attributed her win to an early campaign start and her deep roots in the community. “My commitment is to remain last-focused on what kids need.”
Bates didn’t see the election as a referendum on prevailing wage one way or another, saying voters didn’t really grasp the issue.
“It’s inside baseball,” Bates said.
In answer to the question “Should teachers comprise a bigger part of the school board” posed by the unusual number of teachers in the race, voters seemed to say, “only if they’re incumbents.” That would be Catherine Ingram, the incumbent Democratic candidate and a full-time lecturer at Northern Kentucky University. White is the Director of Community Engagement for the Fine Arts Fund, though she’s been a long-time volunteer and presence on various school boards and committees.
Several issues troubling CPS seemed to inspire candidates to emerge from the woodwork. The board had conducted a failed nationwide search for a new superintendent before voting to officially appoint interim superintendent and CPS veteran Mary Ronan.
More troubling to some, however, was that the board had gone to absurd lengths to shield from public scrutiny the details of those searches — going so far as to let applications accumulate in a post office box so the board could claim it didn’t actually have the resumes and therefore they wouldn’t be subject to open records requests. The Cincinnati Enquirer sued the board for access and just last month filed another suit against the board for violating an Ohio public meetings law.
In another black mark against the board, last year the district interviewed a candidate without realizing he was the subject of a sexual harassment case — until some Average Joe did an Internet search and stumbled across the information.
On Tuesday night, all six candidates asked seemed to think the school board could do a better job of communicating more openly with the public and media.
“There was never any intention to do things behind the scenes,” Ingram said. She and fellow Democratic candidates gathered with about 50 supporters at Sonny’s All Blues Café in North Avondale to watch election returns.
“We try to do the best that we can,” Bates said later at Hamilton County Board of Elections. “We’re normal.”
Then she rethought her choice of words: “We’re citizens.”
Bates said the board is looking at consulting with a parliamentarian who could offer more professional advice.
Cooper Reed, a lawyer, said, “The goal is to have as few executive sessions as possible. Even those things that can be executive sessions, they don’t have to be necessarily.”
Asked about their top priorities, Bates and Cooper Reed responded in tandem: “Student achievement, student achievement, student achievement.”
“We’re grateful for the passage of the levy,” Cooper Reed added.
The CPS tax levy renewal, Issue 52, passed with 60 percent of the votes. It provides $65 million per year for five years toward the general operation expenses — teachers, books, transportation and the like — for the district, starting in 2011.
Critics had pointed out that CPS could have waited until next year to put the levy before voters, since it didn’t expire until 2010, but supporters held that the powers-that-be needed to know now if the levy would be in place so they could finalize the 2010-11 school year budget by next June.
The levy comprises 14 percent of the district’s $467 million annual budget. After a similar $65 million renewal failed in 2007, it passed by 52 percent in a special election last March.
Incumbents Bates and Cooper Reed attributed their reelections, and that of fellow incumbent Ingram, to voters seeing the board “operating more functionally,” Bates said. “We have more stability on the board.”
Prominent local blogger and political gadfly-turned-school board candidate Jason Haap, who placed 11th among the 12 candidates, thought the returns were the result of something else entirely.
“One of the things I noticed was that my placement reflected my fundraising,” Haap said. “Big money soundbites trump in-depth discussions of policy.”
School board candidate Curtis Wells, who finished last, also attributed his poor showing to lack of financial backing from special interests. He was disappointed that he was the only populist to run in the election and had hoped another populist candidate might shake up the council race.
On Tuesday night, the more conservative school board candidates — Republican Christopher McDowell and independent John Banner — didn’t make a showing either at the Board of Elections or in election returns.
Lisa Schare, an art teacher running with Democratic backing, said the race had been “very enlightening.”
“It’s been poised as Big Business against unions,” she said. “I think that’s unfortunate.”
She said that the business community’s “obscene” $130,000 expenditure on the school board race was more about preventing prevailing wage and not “child-focused.”
Apparently it was late enough in the night for more honesty. Schare, who didn’t receive CityBeat's endorsement, also took issue with the paper’s endorsement process — or lack of a process.
“It really pissed me off,” she said.
A third Democratic endorsement, Ceair Baggett, didn’t make an appearance at Sonny’s. The fourth Democratic contender, Joyce Hooks, said the race had been more grueling and mean-spirited than she’d expected. As a retired teacher with great-grandchildren in the CPS system, she’d been driven by a passion to serve, she said, looking weary as she watched the big-screen TV at Sonny’s.
Later that election night, Haap and campaign manager Justin Jeffre — who himself lost bids for mayor in 2005 and city council in 2007 — made their way from the Board of Elections. The last thing he wanted to do, Haap said as he lit a cigarette, was to collect his campaign signs.
It wouldn’t be that bad, Jeffre assured him.
“So if (school board member Michael) Flannery isn’t going to run for reelection, am I really going to do this again in two years?” Haap wondered aloud.
Jeffre replied, “Take six months and think about it.”
[Photo: Victorious Cincinnati School Board incumbents Melanie Bates (left) and Eileen Cooper Reed savor the results on Nov. 3. Photo by Cameron Knight.]
Get unofficial HAMILTON COUNTY ELECTION RESULTS here and unofficial OHIO ISSUE RESULTS here.