Thursday, September 2, 2004

CPS must revive its credibility


Cincinnati Public Schools' plan to convene an independent task force to study its finances is a good step - as a first step.

Gathering a group of outside experts to do some semblance of a financial audit is becoming a predictable part of many levy campaigns. But just because it's a formula doesn't mean it doesn't make sense. If CPS' version of this campaign tool is a truly objective board that includes some financial experts, it can help restore public confidence and could propose meaningful changes. After blowing its last budget by almost $22 million and projecting an increase of $11.3 million this year, the district can surely use the help.

But it's becoming quite clear that financial help isn't the only help this district needs. It takes little more than a superficial look to see that the district's financial crisis - as even Superintendent Alton Frailey terms it - has to do with many aspects of district operations.

It is a financial crisis borne of an overstaffing crisis, an enrollment crisis, a teacher contract crisis, a planning crisis and most obviously an interpersonal-relationships crisis. Simply looking at finances won't provide the answers for why so many families are leaving the district, or why staffing levels weren't downsized, or why the majority of the school board and the superintendent cannot seem to get along. Those are just a few of the whys that need answered. After them should come the hows.

There is no question that Cincinnati Public Schools will benefit from some outside financial oversight. With two members of the school board working against a November renewal levy, five members working for it and Frailey seeming oddly silent in the middle, voters need some objective advisers to help them make up their minds. But ballot issues aside, the bigger question is whether the district needs some outside organizational oversight.

So far, the administration has made it clear that the proposed task force will study finances and nothing else, and should not be compared to the 1991 Buenger Commission, which looked at organizational and educational quality issues as well as finances.

But we wonder if a Buenger-type commission wouldn't have a better shot at proposing the long-term, holistic changes that would not only solve the financial crisis, but the educational and interpersonal crises as well. Those issues dog the district at every turn, in the oddest and most unnecessary of places. Even as Frailey announced formation of the new task force, some board members - including the finance committee chair - said it was news to them. Doing end-runs around your board - or simply forgetting to get their feedback - is a sign of the fractious, fragmented atmosphere that clouds and complicates so many actions of this administration.

Forming an independent advisory board and giving it free reign to scrutinize district finances are sound steps that we endorse. Taking it all the way home to scrutinize the problems beyond the dollars is a brave step that we'd applaud.

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