Friday, November 5, 2004

Schools, voters meet in middle


This week, Cincinnati Public Schools received a strong message from voters and appears to be sending a strong one back.

The message received was robust support for a renewal that will continue adding $65 million per year to the district. Even the most optimistic of CPS supporters might not have predicted the renewal would win almost 60 percent of the vote, or that support would be so widespread, with 24 of 26 neighborhoods approving the issue.

For its part, CPS appears to be sending the right message back - one of action, not simply words. Superintendent Alton Frailey responded to the win with a pledge to improve the district's finances. Some board members have already indicated support. They are bedrock solutions - consolidating schools, paring staff and slimming the bloated central office. Mentioning them immediately after the election was a good way to show the district knows what the community wants - better performance and more responsible management - and has the will to deliver it.

Should the district have taken the actions earlier? Absolutely. Increasing staff while student enrollment decreased sharply made no sense to anyone and wasted money, as did maintaining so many small elementary schools. But taking firm steps now can help prevent fiscal disaster. Better management - and more cooperation between the long-estranged school board and administration - may soften voters' hearts for a new money issue that seems destined to come soon. Even with the renewal passage, the district faces a $57 million deficit by 2007. A long-overdue staff buyout will help, but the district will almost surely have to ask for more money.

Funding issues are almost always tough sells for schools - statewide, 77 of 103 levies and bond issues fell to defeat in August, for example - but districts improve their chances when they acknowledge community concerns straight on, act responsively and communicate well.

We see evidence of that in nine other local districts that passed money issues Tuesday. Voters approved school issues in Finneytown, Reading, Sycamore and Winton Woods as well as Cincinnati in Hamilton County; in Fairfield, Monroe and Talawanda in Butler County; in Kings in Warren County; and in Little Miami in Clermont County. Statewide, more than half of 286 school issues passed.

The vast majority of the successful local districts had trimmed budgets, reduced staff or reduced millage before the recent elections. Most had learned the hard way that voters are in no mood to pay for programs they deem unnecessary, staff they see as overpaid or services they view as extraneous.

That's not to say that reductions always sell. Lakota Schools faces its third round of cuts after voters rejected a combination levy Tuesday. But unless Ohio changes its current funding system, schools will have to continue to court community support and respond to criticism, and acknowledge - along with residents - just how interconnected communities and their schools are.

Look out: Next election cycle is starting
Schools, voters meet in middle
Press for new way to fund our schools
More should have 5th-graders' empathy