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Published in Print: May 2, 2001, as Cleveland Banks on Bond Issue To Repair Aging Facilities

Cleveland Banks on Bond Issue To Repair Aging Facilities

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When the roof over East High School's gymnasium collapsed here last fall, renovating and repairing the crumbling building moved from a short list of priorities to among the Ohio school system's most critical needs.

This month, voters must decide whether they will help the 76,000-student district pay the $1.4 billion bill to replace aging roofs, faulty wiring, rotted windows, malfunctioning boilers, and a host of other chronic building problems facing the Cleveland public schools.

The May 8 bond issue would raise $335 million for school construction improvements and would qualify for a match of $500 million in state funding. The measure also would generate about $3 million annually for building maintenance.

But the district's shaky financial past continues to make some voters uneasy, and some local leaders fret about who should monitor the funds. In particular, some voters haven't forgotten how the district mismanaged about $60 million generated from a 1987 bond issue; few of the promised renovations were completed. Still, district officials point to the successful 1996 operating levy that generates $67 million annually for Cleveland schools as a sign of voter support.

If voters back the bond issue, money for repairs and renovations will be available early in 2002. Michael A. Eugene, the district's chief operating officer, called the bond issue a "stop-gap measure" because it still falls short of the $1.4 billion needed.

Nevertheless, the bond issue, along with the state matching funds, would provide the district with enough money to spend about $100 million on facilities improvements annually until about 2010. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, school officials say they will begin replacing the roofs on 16 schools this summer.

While the average age of a public school nationwide was 42 in 1998, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, Mr. Eugene said the average age of Cleveland's 122 schools is 51. All but five Cleveland schools flunked a review of minimum state school building standards. Public schools in Cleveland, Mr. Eugene said, also fell victim to "25 years of deferred maintenance."

In the 1990s, the district's custodial staff was cut in half and now has about 500 employees, the trade staff was reduced from 250 to 47 workers, and the engineering staff of 35 was eliminated and not reinstated until recently.

"We have to get more people from the community to see how bad the general problems really are," Mr. Eugene said.

The Challenge

Although the Cleveland Teachers Union, the AFL-CIO, and several state and local politicians are backing the bond issue, the district suffered a temporary setback last month when George Forbes, the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, announced opposition to the bond proposal.

Mr. Forbes, who did not return telephone calls for this story, has said the NAACP feared that contracts would be given to the mayor's friends and that minority contractors would be overlooked. But Mr. Forbes, a longtime foe of Mayor Michael R. White, and the NAACP reversed that decision days later after pressure from state and local leaders.

Despite the lack of unity on the bond issue, Mr. White said in a recent interview that he was confident the bond issue would pass. He declined to comment on Mr. Forbes' allegations of favoritism in awarding contracts.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the district's chief executive officer, said she was saddened and disappointed by the NAACP's initial opposition. Last month, Ms. Byrd-Bennett and Mr. White created a bond-accountability commission that would monitor how money generated from the bond and levy would be spent.

The 24-member commission, which is made up of business and community leaders, will be led by former U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes, an Ohio Democrat, and Robert Gillespie, a former chief executive officer of KeyCorp, a Cleveland- based financial institution.

Some local leaders have called for an itemized account of what repairs and renovations would be made to reassure voters and hold the district more accountable.

In an April 9 letter to Ms. Byrd-Bennett, Michael D. Polensek, the City Council president, wrote: "I must tell you that many of us have been used and lied to in the past as it pertains to [school] building improvements in each of our wards ...."

Mr. Eugene said district officials are developing a plan to prioritize schools' renovation needs.

In a televised town hall meeting last week, Ms. Byrd-Bennett pledged to resign if money from the bond issue was mismanaged. The school board also has approved a resolution encouraging the district to award 20 percent of the construction projects to minority-owned firms, 5 percent to female-owned businesses, and 20 percent local contractors.

Vol. 20, Issue 33, Page 12

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