Black Groups Urge Columbus Superintendent’s Ouster

By Peter Schmidt — April 11, 1990 3 min read

Black community groups in Columbus, Ohio, last week were calling for the ouster of Superintendent of Schools Ronald E. Etheridge and six of seven school-board members, in response to the dismissal of several black administrators and implementation of a reform plan some critics term racist.

Leaders of one of the groups, the Committee to Remember the Children, vowed to campaign against an upcoming district levy needed to finance the reform plan. They also claimed to have half of the 22,000 signatures needed to petition the Franklin County Probate Court to hold a hearing on the dismissal of the board members.

Other groups were calling for students to boycott school if Mr. Etheridge, who is white, does not resign by April 30.

Late last month, Mr. Etheridge narrowly avoided being removed from office when four board members nearly forced a vote on buying out the remaining 16 months of his three-year contract.

Several board members last week described the superintendent as a bright leader whose actions were designed to improve education for all children in the district, which has a 38 percent dropout rate.

They added, however, that he appears to lack public-relations skills and has almost completely lost the confidence of black leaders, who fear the district is becoming resegregated. The district, which is 47 percent black, was under a federal desegregation order from March 1977 to April 1985.

“I feel that the district needs to move ahead, and I’m not sure it can do that with Dr. Etheridge at the helm,” said Sharlene J. Morgan, vice president of the board, and one of the four who opposed him last month.

“We tried to do too much too quickly,” said another board member, Myrl Shoemaker Jr. “Those personnel decisions have become a lightning rod for attacks.”

As part of a four-year reform plan begun this year, the district has eliminated 41 administrative positions.

As a first step toward making the cuts, Mr. Etheridge notified 61 administrators in January that they might lose their jobs. Since then, 9 have been dismissed, 21 have been placed on one-year contracts, and the remaining 31 have obtained a temporary restraining order preventing the board from dismissing them.

Mr. Etheridge said the cuts were necessary because the number of administrators had grown by 20 perel10lcent over the last decade while enrollment decreased by more than 40 percent, from 110,000 to 65,000.

Several black leaders have alleged that Mr. Etheridge deliberately dismissed several of the most respected black administrators, as well as black and white administrators who were involved in the district’s busing program for desegregating the schools.

David D. Hamlar, a former school-board president and the chairman of the Committee to Remember the Children, contended that the current board’s personnel decisions show an insensitivity to minority concerns that has also been displayed in other decisions.

For example, Mr. Hamlar accused the board of endorsing curriculum reforms that, he said, threaten to track black students toward menial jobs. He and Charles O. Ross, a leader of the African Community School Coun4cil, also asserted that the board’s reform plan threatens to resegregate schools by carving the district into six “communities of schools.”

In an interview last week, Mr. Etheridge said the district had sent some 800 letters to civic groups in an effort to improve community relations. In addition, he said, James R. Oglesby, president of the National School Boards Association, will be consulting with the district on ways to improve its internal relations.

Mr. Etheridge, a former Savannah, Ga., superintendent, said he has tried to be a “change agent” for the Columbus district. But, he said, “I don’t think there is a level of communication high enough to offset what has come out of this change.”

“It’s unfortunate,” he added, “that those of us in urban districts who are trying to do our jobs incur the wrath of citizens who, quite frankly, are not understanding entirely what we are attempting to do.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 1990 edition of Education Week as Black Groups Urge Columbus Superintendent’s Ouster