News: Schoolhouse Brawl

Cincinnati School Board squabbles could doom tax levy

Oct 13, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Bonnie Davis

School board member Melanie Bates says defeating a tax levy would help reform the district.

The Cincinnati Public School District (CPS) is torn by infighting, with two board members actively campaigning against the renewal of a tax levy on the Nov. 2 ballot.

The operating levy, which will not raise taxes, would generate $65 million over five years. Renewed four times since 1980, the levy contributes 15 percent of the district's budget.

School board members Melanie Bates and Rick Williams are separating themselves from the rest of the board to campaign against the levy. In the past, the board has stood united in front of the public when a levy was on the ballot, but Bates and Williams say it's time to take a stand to make changes to improve public education.

"Typically, it's the anti-taxers who oppose the levy," Bates says. "This time it's two people who have been staunch supporters of the school district for many years who are opposing. We don't believe that we have a system where adults in charge have the authority to do what they believe they need to do to help kids."

State Rep. Tom Brinkman (R-Mount Lookout), founder of the Coalition to Oppose Additional Spending in Taxes (COAST), says CPS has failed to reach promised goals.

"The kids are dumber than ever before and it's not their fault," he says.

"They're just not being educated."

Too many meetings?
Before the levy was renewed in 2000, board members presented a plan to voters to pay teachers based on the academic performance of their students, but the teachers' union opposed the plan. The board failed an important goal, according to Williams, who says the merit-pay plan was presented to voters to encourage support for the tax.

But board member John Gilligan says it's not so simple.

"The plan was never an explicit pledge," he says.

The pay-for-performance plan is part of a five-point reform that Bates and Williams presented to the board. The plan also includes demands to:

· reduce the number of board meetings in order to allow administrators to focus on the needs of the children;

· reduce the number of schools to fit the district's smaller enrollment;

· give the superintendent authority to hire a team to coordinate the construction and renovation of schools;

· allow the superintendent to participate in evaluating the school district's treasurer.

But those reforms are already largely underway, Gilligan says.

"There is nothing in that plan we aren't already trying to do — except for the last one, because it violates state law," he says.

However, Williams says the board is ignoring the plan and focusing on getting money.

Implementing the five-point plan will push the community to hold board members accountable and encourage them to provide public schooling that "reflects the values and standards of the community," Bates says.

Levy supporters brag about the school district's improvements this year, arguing that state education officials no longer consider CPS in a state of "academic emergency." But the improvements are marginal, according to Bates, who says Cincinnati is losing population because of the poor quality of public education. The problem lies in the barriers created by CPS board members, she says.

"The administration does not have time to dedicate to educating children because they are catering to the needs and wants of the board," she says. "The money we generate all goes to adults. Since 2000 we've lost 16 percent of our student enrollment, had to reduce the size of facilities and master plans, yet we keep asking for more money and increasing teachers and staff."

'Playing with fire'
CPS overspent its budget by almost $22 million last year. Brinkman says the money is being mismanaged and spent unnecessarily.

"(The CPS board) would do a better job if we took this money away," he says. "At least they wouldn't be wasting it."

But the levy is key to the school district's well being, Gilligan says. If the levy isn't renewed, CPS will have to cut $32 million from its budget in the first six months and fire teachers and personnel, he says.

But Bates says CPS puts a tax levy on every ballot, leaving opposing board members with little opportunity to demand accountability.

"We are exposing a lot of dysfunction to the community," she says. "(Williams) and I cannot make these changes from within. We want the public to create the pressure."

Bates says the tax levy can wait until a special election in February. Gilligan argues that February will be too late because schools create budgets for the following year in December.

CPS has been making progress, which is an indication that the flow of money should continue, Gilligan says.

"How do you help students by cutting their funding off?" he says.

The opposition by two fellow board members exasperates Gilligan.

"Never in my life have I heard of a (school board) where members are out to get defeated," he says.

Brinkman says opposing the levy is a negotiation ploy. If the levy fails Nov. 2, he expects CPS to address its problems, re-evaluate its budget and present a "better deal" to taxpayers.

Gilligan says it's difficult to convince taxpayers to renew a levy once it's failed.

"People like Brinkman will say, 'If you didn't convince them before, why should they be convinced four months later?' " Gilligan says.

Furthermore, special elections mean additional costs.

"It costs money to hold (a special election) and energize people to vote," Gilligan says. "(Bates and Williams) are playing with fire here. They represent a burden to the district."

Williams rejects that charge.

"This is not about hurting the district," he says. "We are just making a statement: Do better with our money."

Superintendent Alton Frailey didn't return calls seeking comment. ©