Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Levy backers put support on hold


They'll vote no if CPS doesn't improve

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Groups that have long backed Cincinnati Public Schools' levy campaigns plan to withhold their support of upcoming levies unless the struggling district begins to show prompt improvement in student achievement.

The groups also are calling for increased decision-making power for Superintendent Alton Frailey, who oversees the 38,800-student district; greater participation by minority contractors and workers in the district's $1 billion school construction project; and more accountability from teachers.

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Among groups planning to withhold support are the Baptist Ministers Conference of Cincinnati; the Amos Project, a group of congregations dedicated to promoting their faith through public action; and the Cincinnati Business Committee, leaders of the area's largest and most influential businesses. These organizations campaigned hard for the district last May to help pass a $480 million bond issue to help pay for the school construction project.

That won't happen again without marked improvement, they said.

"Enough is enough," said Calvin Harper, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference. "We will no longer support the status quo."

Several members of the groups, along with school board members Melanie Bates and Rick Williams, met with the Enquirer Monday to express their dissatisfaction with the district's direction. The district is labeled in "academic emergency" by the state, the lowest of five rankings for student achievement.

The groups plan to hold a press conference today to tout their demands for improved performance and accountability.

"We had been on a path of reform," said Craig Maier, co-chairman of the Cincinnati Business Committee's school task force. "Now we're sliding back. (The business committee is) the primary financier of the bond levy campaigns. But we will not support these levy campaigns at the same level unless we see promises being kept."

Harper and members of the Amos Project said they also want the district to keep its promise to create a pay structure under which teachers are paid based on how well they teach, rather than on seniority. The Cincinnati Federation of Teachers union overwhelmingly defeated a measure to create such a pay structure two years ago.

The teachers union and board are negotiating teacher contracts now. Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, said the board's negotiating team hasn't made proposals to implement any new pay structures.

The coalition's decision to withhold support from the district would have negative implications for the district's next levy request, which could happen as soon as November. A five-year $65 million levy renewal is being considered to pay for school operations and salaries.

School board members Williams and Bates said part of the problem is that too many small school groups have decision-making power but don't have accountability.

The district launched efforts about a decade ago to give individual schools more autonomy. As part of that, schools each have their own councils made up of teachers, parents, community members and the principal. Those councils make school budget decisions.

The board members also blamed district groups called Instructional Leadership Teams, made up of teachers, principals and other staff members. The principal and others staff members are on the teams. Those groups makes decisions on budgets, curriculum, programs and staffing.

Bates, who has been on the board for two years, said the district and board made concessions to interest groups and delegated authority to those groups. That has hampered administrators' efforts to improve results in their schools, she said. Bates said she's not ready to say she won't support the district's upcoming levies but she will have trouble asking her constituents to support the district without significant change.

Williams and Bates said they welcome the scrutiny because the district won't change unless pressured by the community.

Williams said the structure of the district leaves Frailey, the superintendent, with little authority to make program and budget changes that will help to improve student performance. Williams said he won't support upcoming levies without some changes.

Frailey could not be reached.

"We have a school system where committees make decisions, and it's hard to hold someone responsible for decisions because you don't know where the decisions came from," Williams said.

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E-mail jmrozowski@enquirer.com




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