[PHOTO GALLERY: Mary Ronan took CityBeat photographer Cameron Knight on an exclusive tour of the under-construction School for Creative and Performing Arts downtown.]
Even before her first day on the job, Mary Ronan knew she would face tough scrutiny. Not from the people who hired her, although they would be watching too, but from the parents of the 34,000 students who’ve entrusted her with their children’s education.
Ronan, the newly appointed Cincinnati Public Schools superintendent, has one of the most demanding and high-profile jobs in the city, overseeing the state’s third-largest school district.
A 32-year veteran of the district, Ronan started out as a middle school math and science teacher in the 1970s. She eventually worked her way up to Kilgour School principal and then later assistant superintendent before becoming interim superintendent in summer 2008 after former Superintendent Rosa Blackwell resigned.
After a process fraught with setback and controversy (including the school board’s attempt to keep the superintendent candidate names secret by having them send resumes to a P.O. Box, which it believed would circumvent Ohio’s public records laws), Ronan was unanimously elected to the district’s top administrative post April 16.
Ronan recently sat down with CityBeat to talk about her new position, the challenges and progress of overseeing the district, increasing parental involvement and educating the city’s children with never-ending pressures of budget shortfalls.
CityBeat: What are some of the biggest challenges you face and how to you plan to address them?
Mary Ronan: Well, accelerating academic achievement is our number one priority. We know we can’t just say we’re in “continuous improvement” and that we’re satisfied with that. We need to do better. We need to make sure every single child is successful.
Probably one of the most exciting initiatives this year is we are creating an office of innovation. Because I think if you’re going to accelerate academic achievement you need to have someone out there looking nationally and internationally at what are best practices? What is new? What works? We’ve staffed it with a grant writer because I think with all the monies out there, we need to have someone making sure we don’t miss an opportunity. Also, we’ve redesigned three of our low-performing elementary schools; they’re set to open two weeks early. We have spent the summer training the teachers and the new principals in these buildings in turnaround specialist training. Turn around, in that we want them to turn around test scores in the building. And the staff of the turn around specialists will visit our schools next year to make sure they are on track. And they are saying after two years our schools should be able to make (adequate yearly progress). So we are committing time and resources to the program and targeting them at the schools that have been struggling.
CB: Some people say the school board’s too secretive, the administration doesn’t communicate as well as it could with the public. What do you say to people who criticize the district, and what are you personally trying to do to make sure people feel like they know what’s happening?
MR: I feel like this year I tried to make an effort to be collaborative and transparent. I send out weekly e-news to staff and quarterly messages to our stakeholders because I feel like it’s important that they understand. This is the direction we are going in and I have no problem reaching out to our partners to ask them to help. Because as a district I think we realize that we can’t do it alone, we do need support. I have been very fortunate this year that community support has been great. I’ve had support from the business community, the non-profits, the universities. People have offered their assistance and I’ve tried to take advantage of that wherever possible.
In terms of transparency we rolled out an online Dashboard in October where anyone in the district can just log on and take a look at the central office plus all 58 schools, see how much they’ve spent in the last 24 hours. So you can look at all kinds of indicators. I don’t think you can wait until you have a renewal levy when people ask you, ‘Where’s the money?’ Then you’re trying to explain it in the fall. You can track this any day of any week, so I’m hoping the community will know where we are putting our resources. You can look at attendance at one of our schools, budgets at any of the schools any day of the week.
CB: How much of that can you relay to the board so they’re not sending resumes to P.O. boxes?
MR: Let’s just say I try to communicate with the board daily on issues I feel they need to be aware of, or I would like some input on. So my personal style is to be very collaborative. And I have found the board to be supportive this year. And I think they appreciate being involved in many of the decisions and initiatives. I feel before you ask them to approve one of my recommendations, the board should have some background before bringing it to them.
CB: There is always a lot of criticism of the district, but what are some positive things happening right now?
MR: I think our Fifth Quarter (summer program) is very positive because it gives children an extra month of instruction time. That is a really good use of our federal dollars; with three months off in the summer, I think all children backslide. If there are not enrichment opportunities all summer, teachers have to spend a lot of time in September playing catch up or re-teaching a lot of what they had gone over in the spring. So that makes me feel good that we can offer that to our youngsters in our 13 elementary schools whose test scores are not where they should be. … I get worried that during the year we are so focused on academics that children don’t always get the extras and the enrichment that I truly think helps make a well-rounded child. But we’re so focused on testing scores during the year.
CB: I know it’s not just in Cincinnati, but lots of districts keep facing cuts…
MR: We’re honestly very concerned right now. We don’t know what our budget is going to look like for next year. Gov. Strickland tried to revamp education and make it a priority, but when it has got into the Senate and the House, his plan had changed greatly. Our district had to pass a 90-day temporary budget because we’re required by law to have a budget by June 30th. And as of now we are into July and we do not know what our budget is going to be next year. I think all 614 school districts are concerned, because we keep hearing about cuts but don’t know how big those cuts are going to be.
Often times we’re required by law to terminate contracts back in March or April, and it’s July and we don’t know what our budget is. So needless to say we have been very conservative with our hiring. At this point we didn’t do layoffs because then you have to pay unemployment compensation. So you don’t want to overreact, which can cost you money long-term. But we’re all very, very anxiously awaiting to see what Columbus is going to give us.
CB: What about the bigger, overall issue of how education is funded in this state? What would you like to see come out of Columbus?
MR: The governor’s original plan that relied on an Instructional Quality Index was very beneficial for Cincinnati Public Schools because it did not just rely on property wealth. We are blessed that we still have jobs and international companies in Cincinnati. Other cities in Ohio like Canton and Toledo, their center city is just devastated. They have no business left. But at the same time that we have property wealth, a huge number of our families are living in poverty. And the governor’s Instructional Quality Index took that into account. It also took into account the educational level of the parents in the district, how many college graduates there were and the economic conditions of the family. Because the current system is based on property wealth, Cincinnati is funded like Worthington, a rich suburb of Columbus. We only get 40 percent of our funding from the state if we’re (classified as) a wealthy district, which is not true at all.
CB: Then you have to go to the public and have these levies, and people feel like they just can’t do it.
MR: They can’t do it, right. Sixty percent of the funding has to come from our district because we’re viewed as a wealthy district in the eyes of Columbus. If we were in Cleveland, the state pays 70 percent of the cost of operating Cleveland Public Schools … Our board has voted on a five-year emergency renewal, it was first put in place in 1994 and it comes up every five years, and 2009 is its time to come back up. It will not raise taxes. But we do have a renewal on the ballot that’s vital to fiscal stability. Without that — it’s about 15 percent of our budget — the district could not survive.
CB: What does the parental involvement itself add to you being able to educate children and get your job done?
MR: I think everyone intuitively knows that if a parent is actively involved in their children's education, things will probably go more smoothly or the child will be more successful. However, I think, especially in today's economic climate where parents have to work two jobs to survive, we also need to realize that when parents get their kids to school on time with their homework done, that is also showing part involvement. ... We recognize all the efforts the parents make to help their child.
CB: How do you feel being in the position now?
MR: I feel very honored. This has been the high point in my career. I plan on doing the very best job possible. I've spent more than 30 years in the district, and I want to the district to be more successful then when I walked in.