Friday, February 27, 1998
Two-faced school board
insult to city

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati's Board of Education is a textbook case in gutless leadership. Faced with a tough decision this week on teacher benefits, Cincinnati Public Schools' board ran up the white flag, blamed everybody but itself and surrendered to stupidity.

Board members griped during Wednesday's meeting on the school system's overgenerous sick-leave policies and the touchy matter of providing health care for the partners of gay employees.

Board members also fussed and fumed at how their negotiators did not follow the board's marching orders. The negotiators - top school administration officials - were told to go after the sick-leave situation and sidestep any action on the coverage of gay employees' partners.

When the dust settled, sick-leave was unchanged and a committee was formed to study gay partner health care. A committee was also created to study the sick-leave situation.

Board members got mad, saying negotiators had ignored their orders.

But when push came to shove, the board refused to confront the issues head-on. Board members went along, voting 4-2 to form the committees, while lambasting the negotiators for giving away the store.

Say one thing. Do another. Isn't that the worst kind of education? Frankly, it's an insult, a slap in the face to every district taxpayer expecting gutsy leadership from elected officials. It's also an unnerving drama to behold at the top of a school district trying to shore up its image with parents - parents who vote on levies and may also vote with their feet if they feel the district cannot be trusted.

Who's on first?

When I saw the story about the school board's action, I had to read it twice. My Cincinnati public school education hadn't failed me. I just couldn't believe my eyes.

The board is trying to have it both ways. It gets all puffed up and voices its opposition. But it votes in the opposite direction. Such two-faced behavior would shame even the worst of Washington's flimflam men.

If being two-faced were the only sin the school board committed, it would be bad enough. But this group also tried to absolve itself of any guilt by using its negotiators as scapegoats.

Whatever happened to diligently monitoring a negotiation's progress? Good teachers do that when they make assignments in class. Good school boards should do the same in important negotiations. Gutless leadership seems in style this month. A couple weeks ago, city council jumped all over City Manager John Shirey for not including the police union in police-community mediation meetings. This was after a federal mediator spent four months here and the group issued a list of recommendations. Did complaining council members check on the guest list for those discussions before or during the talks? No.

In the world beyond Cincinnati, negotiators and their bosses are in constant contact. The president knows exactly what the secretary of state says to U.N. negotiators. The head of General Motors knows exactly what is on or off the table during United Auto Workers contract talks. No settlement is a surprise.

''Absolutely,'' said Jerry Lawson, a mediator and president of the Center for Resolution of Disputes. ''That's an accordion process where you jump back and forth from the negotiations to the decision maker.''

If lousy communication screws up a deal, Mr. Lawson said, ''disappointment and frustration can appear in future sessions. People will grouse and say, 'Nothing's getting done. We're going nowhere,' and leave the table.''

Lead by example

Whether they sit on city council or the school board, I judge leaders by simple but high standards.

They should know what they want. They should be responsible for their actions and do what's right.

With the school board, that means you don't vote for what you don't want. You look out for your students and the staff we pay to educate them. You don't blame others.

And when the going gets tough, have the guts to see it through.

School board angered by health plan talks

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

RADEL ARCHIVES