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'Crisis' Spurs State Takeover Of Cleveland

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Declaring the Cleveland school system to be in a "state of crisis," a federal judge has turned over total control of the district to Ohio's state schools chief.

U.S. Circuit Judge Robert B. Krupansky, who presides over the district's desegregation case, ruled that internal dissension, management problems, and a crippling budget deficit had undermined the district's ability to carry out its educational program. The district could no longer comply with court orders in the case, he added.

The judge issued his unexpected order on March 3, Sammie Campbell Parrish's last day in office as the district's superintendent. He cited her departure, and the January resignations of two top deputies, as evidence of a "leadership and management void within the district."

He also noted that the district had exhausted its $500 million operating budget for this fiscal year and was facing a $29.5 million shortfall with no immediate prospects for a loan. The district's debt load--25 percent of the budget--is the highest in the state, the judge said.

Judge Krupansky cited the school board's repeated failure to close between 14 and 25 buildings that had been declared beyond repair and that were no longer needed to house its 74,000 students.

Some See Opportunity

"The board has no viable contingency plan in place to effectively address the deteriorating professional and executive staffing and fiscal conditions that prevail within the district," the judge wrote.

He ordered Ted Sanders, the state superintendent of public instruction, to take control of the district's fiscal and personnel operations, including the administration of its educational programs, and to submit interim and long-range reorganization plans.

Administrators, school board members, and civic leaders in Cleveland sought last week to put a good face on the takeover, arguing that it gives the city an opportunity to overhaul its schools in partnership with the state.

"While this decision may be viewed by some as a setback, I do not agree," Mayor Michael R. White said in a statement. "It presents meaningful opportunities for the district to closely scrutinize its operations and make the tough decisions required to make the Cleveland schools a productive, accountable, and stable school system."

Carol S. Gibson, the executive director of the Cleveland Initiative for Education, an organization of corporations and philanthropies, agreed. "We could sit here and wring our hands, or we could say, 'This is a partnership, an opportunity to move forward, so let's do it and grab hold of this opportunity."'

Mr. Sanders and top officials from the Ohio education department spent last week in Cleveland meeting with administrators and sketching a plan of action for the district--the state's largest.

"So far, we've had great cooperation between the district administrative team and the board," said Robert Moore, an assistant state superintendent. "They've been very helpful."

Mr. Moore said a team of state officials, district administrators, and outside experts likely would oversee the district's day-to-day operations.

The first order of business last week was to arrange for Cleveland to get state approval and find a lender for a loan to carry the district through the end of the fiscal year.

Until Judge Krupansky ordered state officials to expedite the loan, Mr. Sanders had refused to support the district's request for authorization to seek the $29.5 million loan.

Richard DeColibus, the president of the 5,000-member Cleveland Teachers Union, said his members were relieved that teachers would be paid.

"The judge evidently concluded that the district was close to a state of meltdown," he said.

School Closings Ordered

The judge also directed the school board to identify and close by May 1 at least 14 schools that are beyond repair, and to begin plans to submit an operating levy to voters.

The board voted days before the judge's order to withdraw a tax levy from the May ballot. Despite repeated attempts, Cleveland voters have not passed such a levy for schools since 1983.

Lawrence A. Lumpkin, the president of the school board, did not return calls last week. But, in a speech to a civic club, Mr. Lumpkin said he hoped district officials could play a prominent role in helping resolve the problems.

He cautioned that if solutions were "imposed from the outside without public support" they would be "destined to fail."

The series of hearings that led up to Judge Krupansky's ruling was triggered in January, when the district asked to be declared desegregated in its assignment of students. The district argued that it should not have to transfer about 400 students to achieve racial balance.

But the request was seen by the plaintiffs in the desegregation case and the state as a violation of a consent decree, entered into last March, that was expected to bring the 21-year-old case to an orderly end. (See Education Week, March 16, 1994.)

Judge Krupansky, who took over the case last fall, commented during a hearing that he was becoming increasingly concerned about the district's ability to live up to its end of the bargain.

Ms. Parrish, who resigned to become the education dean at North Carolina Central University in Durham, laid part of the blame for Cleveland's woes on Ohio's school-finance system, which forces districts to pass levies just to cover operating costs.

"I knew he had concerns," she said last week of the judge's order, "but in my wildest dreams I did not expect this."

Ms. Parrish said the problems in Cleveland are immense, and added that she supported the takeover decision.

"I do believe that maybe it's the right decision at the right time," she said.

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