News: 'No' Is Not an Option

School board will keep asking for tax hike

 
Jymi Bolden


Carolyn Turner of Parents for Public Schools is working for passage of the bond levy.



After going 1-for-3 at the ballot box in recent years, Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) needs a $480-million hit.

The school district is asking voters to approve a 4.89-mill bond issue to rebuild and rehab the district's aging buildings. The tax would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $143 annually.

If Issue 2 doesn't pass this time, expect to hear from CPS again; its board and administrators are committed to asking voters for the bond until they get it.

CPS has already begun the first phase of its 10-year, $985-million Facilities Master Plan, but it needs the bond, known as Issue 2, to complete the final three phases. The state is contributing 23 percent of the cost. The bond will take care of half the project's total cost.

The Facilities Plan calls for building 35 new schools and renovating 31 others. By 2012 the district would have 66 schools, 14 fewer than in 2001 due to mergers.

The project would be the largest ongoing construction project in the city — unless Hamilton County voters also approve Issue 7, a half-cent sales tax to build light rail lines and expand the city's bus system.

The momentum for Issue 2 began in 1995 when the U.S. General Accounting Office reported Ohio's school buildings were in the worst shape of any state in the nation. Ohio established the Ohio School Facilities Commission, which worked closely with CPS and other districts to revise building standards and provide matching funds for construction.

CPS plans to build schools with flexible classrooms — called "pods" — that allow teachers to lecture more easily, allow students to work collaboratively and accommodate new technology. The new classrooms will also provide space for one-on-one teacher-student conferences, something often done in hallways now, according to Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (CFT).

"It's a state-of-the-art instruction facility," Taylor says.

There's also a lot of emphasis on making the buildings accessible to the community.

Taylor wishes CFT as an organization would have been involved in creating the Facilities Plan; under former Superintendent Steve Adamowski's leadership, they weren't asked, she says.

The teachers were consulted individually, however, and CFT is strongly supporting the bond issue. On Sept. 11 the union became the first organization to endorse the tax levy. Since then Taylor has sent communications to members emphasizing how important it is to actively support the campaign.

After unveiling the plan in January, CPS administrators began taking feedback from parents and teachers in a series of meetings, which led CPS to change parts of the plan. For example, CPS was planning to close Windsor Elementary School and renovate Hoffman Elementary School in the Walnut Hills/Evanston area. But community input led CPS to propose a new school to replace both of them. Likewise, the district added another new elementary school in Price Hill to relieve overcrowding in existing schools.

As a result, fewer students will be moved around, according to Sally Warner, a member of the Cincinnati Board of Education.

"What actually surfaced were some better ideas," she says.

In recent years CPS hasn't had a great deal of success with tax levies. Voters rejected two proposals in the 1990s. In 2000 voters passed a 6.0-mill levy for reducing class size and finishing emergency maintenance.

Issue 2 has a long list of endorsements, including the Greater Cincinnati Board of Realtors and the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati.

Among opponents of the tax levy is the group Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST). The anti-tax group says the bond issue is too much, too soon. There's no way of knowing if all this money will be needed down the road, according to COAST Chair Jim Urling.

COAST wants CPS to establish a track record of finishing projects on time and on budget by completing the 17-building first phase. Then COAST might support a levy for the other three phases in 2005.

"The demographics here are just unpredictable," Urling says. "I don't think the school board has made their case."

Even if CPS does well on the first phase, don't expect COAST to jump on board. COAST will only support tax increases that don't exceed the rate of inflation. No tax increase in the past few years has met COAST standards, Urling says.

Meanwhile, the district is preparing to demolish the old Condon Elementary School in Roselawn to make way for a new Rockdale Elementary School, the first of the phase-one projects.

How well all this goes will depend in part on the school district's new superintendent, Alton Frailey, who had been assistant superintendent in a suburban Houston district.

The board voted 7-0 to hire Frailey in September, moving quickly (and secretively) to replace Adamowski, who resigned in June to take a teaching position at the University of Missouri. Frailey begins full-time work in early November.

"I am cautiously optimistic that he has the abilities and the skills to move the district forward," Taylor says.

Warner says Frailey is the can-do guy needed to make Adamowski's reforms happen.

"He is, in my mind, the person we need now," Warner says. ©

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