After ratcheting its state rating from "academic emergency" to "continuous improvement," Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) might appear healthier to voters. But can a district that allowed itself to slip into the abyss in the past continue improvement for the future?
In the Nov. 8 election, six candidates will vie for four open school board seats. Three newcomers — Susan Cranley, William Haase and Eileen Cooper Reed — are challenging incumbents Melanie Bates, Catherine Ingram and Harriet Russell. With new Superintendent Rosa Blackwell at the helm, candidates find themselves in an unusual position: CPS advocate, instead of critic.
Those running see the district moving in the right direction but disagree about the pace and methods. Candidates agree on two major points: CPS must focus on academic achievement for all children, and the district must practice fiscal responsibility. Opinions begin to differ about how to achieve those goals and about the performance of the current school board as a whole.
Not smelling the roses
Russell, who has been on the school board 12 years, sees it as very effective, "right-sizing" the budget by eliminating $41 million in spending in the past nine months. She says CPS is continuing with its master plan, opening four new schools and renovating seven that will be community learning centers.
While the board has appeared fractured in the past, Russell says most recent votes have been unanimous. She wants to continue with the district's current plans and hopes whoever is elected will work with Blackwell to implement them.
"I'm running on a platform of continuing to serve the students and continuing to work with the communities to strengthen our educational opportunities for all of our students throughout the district," Russell says. "I believe in leadership, accountability and results. That's what I practice and will continue to provide."
But Bates cautions voters to re-examine spending reductions due primarily to downsizing schools and staff as a result of plummeting enrollment. She says the much anticipated administrative cuts were actually no more than a reshuffling of people when Blackwell took office.
"Everything is not rosy, or else we wouldn't have the exodus," Bates says. "Crime and education are the two main reasons why people leave cities or areas. If everything is rosy, why are people leaving?"
Bates and fellow incumbent Rick Williams gained notoriety last year when they dissented from the rest of the board and campaigned against renewal of a tax levy for the district (see "Schoolhouse Brawl," issue of Oct. 13-19, 2004). This year Bates is running on a joint ticket with Reed, a longtime friend and colleague. They have a five-point plan focusing on increasing academic achievement, school safety, fiscal accountability, improvement of teacher quality and including families and communities in education.
"We need strong board leadership to ensure progress continues to be made and that we don't revert back to the old ways and the more traditional ways of the district that had us in academic emergency to begin with," Bates says. "And I don't believe that the current board makeup has the leadership to do that."
A longtime children's advocate and former president of the Children's Defense Fund of Ohio, Reed says the board's current plans are too passive to address all students' needs. By setting small and achievable goals, CPS does a disservice to children by allowing for an acceptable level of failure, she says.
"We can't afford to say a school can go from 33 to 36 percent achievement," Reed says. "What about the other 64 percent? What do you say about them, how do you address their educational needs? The state standard for how many are supposed be proficient is 75 percent; that's where our goal should be."
Reed quotes Mahatma Gandhi: "Be the change you want to see." She says change must take hold at the school level, in neighborhoods and communities. She says building renovation isn't enough if the community doesn't support what's inside.
"I don't think children are enough of the focus," Reed says. "If they were, the urgency for their achievement would have been apparent before now."
Ingram, president of the Ohio School Board Association, says the board is more focused now than ever on the urgency of moving forward. CPS must change the perception that it is riddled by poor conditions and low overall achievement, she says. One answer is to improve customer service in all schools, especially those with substantial decreases in enrollment, she says.
"The more you do, the more people will change their minds," Ingram says. "People make up their minds for whatever reason based on one experience that they had. What I find is that so many people don't know what's going on in our school system. All they know is what they read, and what they read isn't necessarily what's going on."
Everyone agrees children benefit from great schools and education, but CPS fails to use proven best practices, according to Cranley, a teacher in the St. Bernard-Elmwood Place School District. Her campaign Web site (susancranley.com) outlines a 10-point plan to put student achievement first, end dysfunctional board politics and make schools neighborhood assets.
"We need to figure out what it is we need to give kids to be successful during the school day — that's it," Cranley says. "It sounds simplistic, but it really isn't. They need it to be successful at school, and if it's not coming from any other source, then the school has to provide it, whether we like it or not. That's why every school doesn't look alike, because there are different things that are needed. It can't be the same in every school building."
Haase, vice president of investments for Wachovia Securities, says he hopes to bring his financial expertise to a board normally filled with educators and specialists in public policy. If elected, he would instigate financial modeling packages for budgeting, taking into account constraints that might be missed, he says.
Haase says the school board as a whole is moving in the right direction, but public perception must be changed.
"I think we should let voters know the value of what we're doing, what they're getting for their taxpayer dollars and how that impacts the community in a positive way," he says. "What I see is that we are educating the next generation in a good way. We need to improve on it, but if you want just your neighborhood and property value to stay good, you have to have good schools."
The Citizens School Committee has posted a detailed questionnaire for candidates (visit cincinnatipps.org). The organization sponsors a forum for candidates 7-9 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Mayerson Academy in the Board of Education Building.
The Citizens School Committee consists of more than 40 community groups and nonprofit organizations (see "School Leadership," issue of March 30-April 5).
Greg Lumas, president of Cincinnati Parents for Public Schools, sees improvement but says the district is a long way from ideal. He hopes voters will use available resources to thoroughly research each candidate before making a decision.
"It's no secret that we have had what many have called a dysfunctional school board in recent years because there's a major split in the board," he says. "I want them to value their differences, but I feel that they need to work more cooperatively. When you have years of a negative image being built up in the public's mind, you don't overcome that overnight." ©
Open for Debate
You can participate in the key mayoral debate between Mark Mallory and David Pepper Nov. 1 organized by five local media outlets: CityBeat, Business Courier, Cincinnati Herald, WCET Channel 48 and WVXU-FM. Here's how:
· Submit questions for panelists to use in the debate;
· Sign up to take the PULSE survey and answer questions about the major issues facing Cincinnati and priorities you'd like the new mayor to pursue (deadline to sign up is Oct. 7);
· Sign up to be part of the debate's live studio audience at Channel 48 (deadline is Oct. 10).
Details and other campaign information and news coverage can be found at cincinnatimayor.com.