Published Online: May 21, 1997

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Bill To Give Cleveland Mayor School Control Advances

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A bill in the Ohio legislature that would hand Cleveland's mayor broad control over his city's beleaguered public schools is a shoo-in for passage, several school officials, lawmakers, and union leaders say.

Among other provisions, the bill would give Mayor Michael R. White the power to appoint a nine-member school board and the superintendent.

Backed by prominent corporate executives and clergy, the bill coasted through the House on May 8 and is expected to pass the Senate by the end of the month or early next month. Republican Gov. George V. Voinovich is poised to sign it into law, and supporters of the bill are confident the federal court overseeing the 72,000-student district will approve the plan.

A federal judge ordered the state two years ago to take the reins of the debt-ridden, low-achieving school district. The bill is the state's latest response to the mandate.("'Crisis' Spurs State Takeover Of Cleveland," March 15, 1995.)

"We're trying to put power back in the hands of local people like the mayor who know the most effective way to run the schools," said Mark Potts, a legislative aide to Rep. Michael W. Wise, a Republican and one of the bill's sponsors.

Mr. Potts said the bill is modeled on the governance system the Illinois legislature enacted for the Chicago school district, where a mayorally appointed board and chief executive took over in 1995.

Challenges Ahead

But smooth sailing in the legislature doesn't mean the Cleveland bill--if passed--would go into effect immediately.

The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, keenly interested in a student body that is 70 percent black, is promising a legal challenge to any change in school governance that is not approved by a voter referendum. If the bill becomes law, voters would not have a direct say in the district administration for another four years, when they could decide to keep the appointed school board or pick a new one.

The Cleveland Teachers' Union, whose members are still fuming from what they saw as hostile interference by the mayor in last year's contract negotiations, is also staunchly opposed to the plan and may join the almost-certain court battle.

"We think this is an attempt by the state of Ohio to pass the football to the mayor so [the state] won't be educationally and economically responsible" for the district, said Michael Charney, the political liaison for the 5,000-member union.

Union and NAACP ire was further provoked by the fact that the House bill altering the governance of the district was sponsored by two white, suburban lawmakers: Mr. Wise and Rep. William G. Batchelder, a fellow Republican. "I call it white colonialism," Mr. Charney said.

Nearly every Democrat, including all but one of the lawmakers from Cleveland, voted against the bill, even though Mr. White is a member of their party. Nearly every Republican, some of whom were won over by the GOP governor's support, voted in favor of the plan. Republicans hold big majorities in the House and the Senate.

Since the state took over the Cleveland schools and named district Superintendent Richard Boyd, school officials have restructured about $150 million in debt and helped pass a levy estimated to generate $67 million a year for the system.

The district's problems are far from over, however. Nearly every school building needs renovations, only 20 percent of its 9th graders pass a state proficiency test, and only 75 percent of the students show up on an average school day.

Mr. Boyd, a former superintendent in two other Ohio districts and the former state schools superintendent in Mississippi, said he would not be a candidate for a mayorally appointed schools post.

But he doesn't expect to be out of a job any time soon, and certainly not in time for the new school year.

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