Published Online: August 5, 2005

Cleveland Chief Announces Departure Just Days After Major Levy Defeat

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the chief executive officer of the Cleveland public schools, announced Friday that she is stepping down from her job, a move that comes three days after voters soundly defeated a levy designed to bolster the troubled district.

Ms. Byrd-Bennett said in a statement Aug. 5 that she would not seek to renew her contract when it expires at the end of September, but would remain in the district for up to a year to help facilitate a smooth transition to new leadership. She said she had decided before the Aug. 2 vote on the levy, Issue 3, that the current contract term would be her last.

“It has been my privilege to serve as CEO of this district for nearly seven years,” she said. “But there comes a time for change. … I have been considering the future for some time and would have reached the same decision regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s operating levy.”

Two-thirds of the voters that turned out for the special election cast their ballots against Issue 3, which would have raised more than $45 million to restore some of the teachers, security guards, and sports and after-school programs that have been cut as the district’s financial woes deepened over the past few years. A portion would also have gone to alleviate future anticipated debt. Cleveland voters rejected another proposed levy nine months ago. They haven’t approved an operating levy since 1996.

Alan Seifullah, a spokesman for the 65,000-student district, said it was too soon to say whether more layoffs would be needed this year. But without more revenue, he added, the district might have to look for additional savings by cutting personnel or closing even more schools than the 11 shuttered in June.

Many interpreted the results on Issue 3 as a referendum on Ms. Byrd-Bennett, who has led the district since late 1998.

“Think of her title: CEO,” said Jerry Austin, a Cleveland-based political consultant. “If you are the CEO of an organization, it most probably has shareholders. The shareholders of this organization are the people of the city of Cleveland. Now, the shareholders have said ‘no’ to additional funds twice. In any other organization, the CEO would get the message the shareholders want a change. Barbara Byrd-Bennett got that message.”

‘One of Urban Education’s Finest’

Meryl T. Johnson, the first vice president of the 4,500-member Cleveland Teachers’ Union, said she believes that voters never fully understood how much Cleveland schools have improved under Ms. Byrd-Bennett’s leadership. The official of the American Federation of Teachers affiliate noted a rise in the graduation rate from 28 percent to 50 percent, and academic gains that outpace the state average. She blamed the news media for focusing on the district’s struggles at the expense of its successes, and fueling skepticism in large swaths of the community.

“I cannot at this moment think of a greater loss to Cleveland than the resignation of Barbara Byrd-Bennett,” said Ms. Johnson. “She is brilliant. She knows research, knows how to get children to learn, knows the kinds of instruction it takes to make it possible. She’s able to communicate her vision to people no matter their socioeconomic status. I’m going to miss her. But it’s awfully hard to stick around when you’re not supported.”

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, an urban-schools advocacy group based in Washington, cautioned against interpreting the levy vote as a judgment on Ms. Byrd-Bennett’s performance. Voters are influenced by many things, he said, and she clearly did an excellent job in a beleaguered school system.

“She really was one of urban education’s finest superintendents,” Mr. Casserly said. “She did a superb job in raising academic performance. She was relentless, and her passion for kids was unquestioned. She leaves a system that still faces many challenges, but is in far better shape academically than she found it.”

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