Sunday, October 24, 2004

CPS levy: 'No' for stalled progress


Four years ago, when Cincinnati Public Schools asked for support for a 6-mill levy that would raise $35 million per year, we said 'Yes.' So did local business leaders, who contributed $400,000 to the campaign, as well as 56 percent of local voters.

This fall, the school district is asking voters to renew that levy, and the silence is deafening. The Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied for the 2000 campaign, is staying neutral. The Cincinnati Business Committee, which until now has supported all levies, is withholding support, as is the Baptist Ministers Conference.

With genuine regret, the Enquirer cannot support Cincinnati Schools' renewal levy.

We cannot in good conscience ask city residents to stand by the significant financial contribution they made four years ago when the school board and administration are not honoring their own pledge to increase accountability and to work together for the good of children.

In fact, the utter inability of this board and administration to put aside personal differences and selfish ambitions and to work collaboratively on almost anything lies at the heart of our lack of support.

The failure of this levy will cause hardship - likely the loss of hundreds of teachers and support staff - for Cincinnati schoolchildren. We hope district leaders can learn their lessons, improve their performance and earn back the voters' trust quickly. The findings of an independent task force convened by Mayor Charlie Luken to analyze district finances could help. If the task force offers suggestions and the district follows them promptly, the schools might find voter support for a March ballot.

For now, a No vote should be read to mean no more petty politics, no more stalling on significant reforms, no more sloppy handling of contracts, spending or business functions.

Rarely have we seen a more dysfunctional group than the Cincinnati Board of Education. They have broken faith with the community, the administration and with each other. As an oversight body, they clearly share blame for a budget that projects a $60 million deficit by 2007 even with passage of this levy renewal, and for the failure to fully execute the reform pledges of the 2000 campaign.

One of those pledges was a pay-for-performance evaluation system for teachers. That plan actually came close to fruition, only to be lost to inattention and exceedingly bungled teacher contract negotiations. As we have written before, pay-for-performance is no magic bullet, but voters were led to expect a system of stricter employee accountability - tied to compensation - and that has not occurred.

Indeed, the failure of this levy should be read as a failure of Superintendent Alton Frailey's overall leadership. Frailey deserves credit for gains on the Ohio Report Card, and moving the district from academic emergency to academic watch. But he shouldn't oversell his success when nearly 60 percent of fourth-graders still aren't proficient in math and half can't read.

More troubling is his poor administrative performance. On his watch, the district far overspent budget, failed to make essential cuts and let the momentum built by former Superintendent Steven Adamowski simply slip away.

The far greatest tragedy of this dismal picture is the effect it will have on 38,000 Cincinnati schoolchildren. The loss of this levy would cost the district $32.6 million for the 2005-06 school year and $65.2 million annually thereafter. The cuts will very likely mean the loss of hundreds of teachers and support staff.

Some of the district's best steps - small-group intervention, early identification of struggling students - would surely be compromised by a levy failure.

If the renewal fails, may district leaders feel the full weight of those losses and change their fractious, ineffective ways.

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