Thursday, June 10, 2004

Board members threaten levy fight

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Two Cincinnati school board members said Wednesday they will campaign against the district's proposed $65 million tax levy renewal unless the district stops what they consider wasting taxpayers' money and breaking promises to voters.

Board members Melanie Bates and Rick Williams said they are fed up with the inefficiency of the school board, and their drastic anti-levy campaign is a last-ditch effort to improve the low-performing district and help Superintendent Alton Frailey do his job.

"You don't get change unless you take risks," Bates said.

The overt opposition is unusual for the Cincinnati Public school board, which prefers to present a united front to voters at tax levy time.

The anti-levy campaign could jeopardize its renewal, which the district's treasurer said is necessary to pay for operations and salaries. A defeat would force cuts of $32.5 million from school budgets for the 2005-06 school year, Treasurer Michael Geoghegan said. This year's general fund budget was $436 million.

"This is absolutely critical to continuing operations of the school district," he said, adding the cuts would mean staff reductions in schools. "You would be cutting right into the core academic program."

A school district resident with a home valued at $100,000 now pays $300 for the levy. Taxes would not increase if residents support it in November.

Mark Turner, president of the pro-levy group Cincinnatians Active to Support Education, said board members' opposition would be troubling.

"It is money that is currently being used, and it is for the children first," Turner said. "I believe that from the bottom of my heart. They are the ones who will get hurt the most if this doesn't get passed."

Both board members insist their actions are in the interest of children.

"We are trying to save the district," Williams said. "We continually lose students, and all we ever do is comment on that fact and do nothing to change how we do business."

Bates and Williams, who have a total of nearly eight years on the school board, demand the following actions:

• Pay teachers based on the academic performance of their students. (The district touted plans for a new teacher pay system during the 2000 levy campaign, but Cincinnati teachers defeated a plan to be paid on performance instead of just seniority in 2002, saying the district's evaluation system was too complex and subjective.)

• Commit to recommendations of the contract diversity and minority inclusion consultant, which include new policies to improve diversity in Cincinnati Public School contracts; and allow the superintendent to hire his recommended group of firms to coordinate the district's $985 million school construction project. (The superintendent recommended the firms in April but the board opposed them, questioning the $16.4 million cost over the life of the 10-year project. Earlier, the board approved the concept of hiring a program coordinator to oversee the building project.)

• Reduce board meetings from four or more a month to two per month to shift the focus of the administration's time to the academic needs of children; limit board committee meetings to policy discussions assigned by a board majority.

• Develop a plan to reduce the number of the school buildings to fit the district's declining enrollment.

• Allow Frailey to help evaluate the district treasurer to ensure appropriate coordination between financial management and executive decision-making. (The treasurer now reports to the board, while the treasurer's staff members are employees of the superintendent.) Bates and Williams said this change would prevent the board from circumventing the superintendent in financial decisions and ensure Frailey is informed for those decisions.

Williams said the money the district spends now has little positive impact on children, which is why he wants the district to adopt the five-point plan.

Board President Florence Newell, who was in a board meeting with Bates and Williams on Wednesday, said she was surprised to hear about their opposition.

"I'm disappointed they haven't shared this with the board yet," she said. Newell said the levy money is necessary to operate the district.

"I don't see how this can possibly benefit students," she said.

Bates and Williams disagree.

"The public is fed up with broken promises, and so are we," Williams said. "We will do everything in our power to persuade the voters to oppose this colossal waste of money unless this school board, right now, commits itself to the reforms the people of Cincinnati are demanding."

Bates and Williams said they would be joined at the Monday board meeting by other groups that support their plan.

Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers union, said she wanted to see the five-point plan before responding.


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