Education

Cincinnati Group Calls for More Power for Superintendent

By Karla Scoon Reid — April 14, 2004 4 min read
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Cincinnati’s most influential business and religious leaders say they won’t support future school tax levies unless the district superintendent gets more authority to make changes to raise lagging test scores.

The shared-decisionmaking structure in the 38,800-student district has fostered a “committee culture” that blurs lines of accountability and has left Superintendent Alton Frailey and school board members with little authority, argue representatives from the Cincinnati Business Committee and the Baptist Ministers Conference.

“The community is holding the board and superintendent responsible for things they cannot affect,” said Rick Williams, a school board member who is working with a new coalition that includes the two groups. “When a committee makes a decision, the superintendent or the board can’t override them. They may have the best of intentions, but they’re not making quality decisions.”

By putting public pressure on the district, the coalition hopes to get a pay-for-performance plan for teachers adopted. It also wants to ensure that minority contractors participate in the district’s $1 billion school construction project. Members of the coalition announced their demands during a news conference last month.

The rift has exposed deep divisions in the southwest Ohio city, which has prided itself on the extensive shared- decisionmaking structure developed under former Superintendent Steven Adamowski.

Many of the committees—which include two at each of the district’s 81 schools that are charged with making instructional and budgetary decisions—are outlined in the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers’ contract.

Alarmed teachers’ union officials and community activists say they were blindsided by the coalition’s ultimatum. It was delivered on March 16, the same week that school board members took the unusual step of rejecting a tentative agreement on a new teachers’ contract.

Sue Taylor, the president of the Cincinnati union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, called the concerns cited by the coalition “overblown.” She pointed out that the union presented a new pay-for-performance plan to district negotiators, but that it was rejected. The 3,500-member union turned down a performance-pay proposal in 2002.

‘A Lot of Green’

The effort to give the superintendent more authority appears to be a ploy, Ms. Taylor said, to strip autonomy from schools. “Name one initiative they wanted that they weren’t able to get,” she said of the superintendent and school board. “This is all smoke and mirrors.”

If business and religious leaders withdraw their support for future school tax levies, the district could suffer dire consequences.

The Cincinnati Business Committee is made up of 25 chief executive officers of the city’s top employers, including the Kroger Co., Federated Department Stores Inc., and the Procter & Gamble Co. The committee provides hefty financial support for school levy campaigns, contributing up to $1 million per effort.

The school board may ask voters to renew a five-year, $65 million operating levy in November.

“We’re talking a lot of green here,” said Emily Spicer, the education chairwoman of the Amos Project, a group of religious congregations in the Cincinnati area. “When [the business committee] takes that position, you’ve got to make some changes. Sometimes, people need to be shook up.”

While the Amos Project isn’t ready to pull its support for school levies, Ms. Spicer said the group, which also is part of the new coalition, wants to give Superintendent Frailey a chance to succeed by giving him more control.

Craig Maier, the co-chairman of the Cincinnati Business Committee’s school task force, argued that keeping the status quo in a district that has been in “academic emergency” since 2000 for failing to meet most state standards isn’t an option.

“What we’re saying is that you’re not going to have money, and you’re not going to have jobs, because you’re not going to have the tax dollars, unless I get what I want first,” said Mr. Maier, who is the chief executive officer of Frisch’s Restaurants. “The superintendent needs to be allowed to be the CEO.”

Mr. Frailey, who declined to comment, has told school board members that he believes the shared-decisionmaking system would hamper efforts to make districtwide changes in curriculum and instruction.

Carolyn N. Turner, the executive director of Cincinnati Parents for Public Schools, an advocacy group that supports public education, said shifting more power to the superintendent could diminish parents’ influence over their children’s education.

“We’re not saying that we don’t want to give [the superintendent] more power,” she said. “But power to do what?”

Meanwhile, the teachers’ union filed a complaint of unfair labor practices with the state last month, charging that the school board was not bargaining in food faith. A fact-finder has been assigned to resolve the remaining differences. The teachers’ contract expired in 2002, but was extended twice to this past February.

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