Cleveland Asks Court To Declare District ‘Unitary’

By Ann Bradley — September 26, 1990 7 min read
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After two years of hinting that it would seek an end to Cleveland’s long-running school-desegregation case, the city board of education has petitioned a federal court to end its supervision of the public-school system.

The board’s Sept. 14 motion asking U.S. District Judge Frank J. Battisti to declare the Cleveland public schools “unitary,” or legally desegregated, came two months after the judge himself ordered a review of the district’s compliance with the desegregation plan.

The district’s progress in carrying out the wide-ranging plan has been a major source of controversy in Cleveland, where some school-board members campaigned on pledges to end forced busing of students. It also factored in the board’s decision last spring to buy out the contract of Superintendent Alfred D. Tutela. (See Education Week, June 6, 1990.)

Judge Battisti, in his July 10 order, wrote that he had decided to take the “first step” toward determining whether the district has complied with his remedial orders because there had been “no significant movement” in the case for several years.

‘Traumatized’ Community

The judge noted that school-board members had “made repeated public statements” indicating that they would ask the court to end its supervision of the district, but that no motion had been filed.

“If defendants are not prepared to go forward,” the judge wrote, “they should say so and refrain from making pronouncements that only confuse, frustrate, and traumatize the community.”

He then ordered the office on school monitoring and community relations, which oversees the case, to conduct a review of the district’s progress in meeting the court-ordered plan and to submit a report to him by Feb. 1, 1991.

Thomas C. Simiele, the general counsel for the school board, said the district had delayed filing the motion because of the complexity of the case, which he described as “one of the most all-encompassing” in the nation.

The district now believes it has fully complied with the judge’s orders, he added.

But Thomas I. Atkins, one of the lawyers who represents the plaintiffs in the case, said the board’s motion was “nothing more than an effort to position themselves” for the eventual termination of the case.

Mr. Atkins said it is “still an open question” as to whether the district has complied with the judge’s orders, which cover 14 areas, including student assignments, testing and tracking policies, and magnet and vocational programs.

In addition, the state of Ohio, which also is a defendant in the case but has been granted unusual powers to monitor and enforce the judge’s orders, has not petitioned for an end to the case.

Controversial Board Member

Meanwhile, the school board has come under fresh criticism in recent weeks for its appointment last month of a controversial anti-busing activist to fill the term of Barbara Anderson, who resigned Aug. 1 after pleading guilty to welfare fraud.

Members of the board voted 4 to 2 to appoint Gerald C. Henley to the seat, despite strong opposition from Mayor Michael R. White, members of the City Council, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and several state politicians.

Mr. Henley stunned the Cleveland community by accusing the Mayor, a councilman, and a state senator--all of whom are black--of being “used by special-interest politicians to undermine the black community.”

Mr. Henley’s letter, which was hand-delivered to council members shortly before his Aug. 30 appointment to the board, also used the term “Uncle Tom house Negroes.”

“I stand behind what it said,” Mr. Henley said last week in an interview. “I didn’t call anyone any kind of name. I think they are being controlled by big-business interests, and everyone knows that big business isn’t controlled by black people.”

Mr. Henley also said it “wasn’t a big deal” that he had pleaded guilty in a Tennessee court in 1986 to two misdemeanor counts related to his failure to make child-support payments.

To keep his new seat on the board, Mr. Henley said he would resign from his job as a Cuyahoga County juvenile-court probation officer. He had been notified by the court that the school-board position would conflict with his job, which takes him into the schools.

Community ‘Furious’

Observers of the Cleveland school system called Mr. Henley’s appointment the latest in a line of questionable decisions by the school board.

Many point to the fact that the board has spent more than $600,000 in the past five years to buy out superintendents--causing turmoil that some observers believe has delayed the district’s progress in meeting the orders in the desegregation case.

“This does seem to demonstrate their continuing ability to shoot themselves in the foot,” Mr. Atkins said. “Cleveland has for many years had a board that apparently felt the need to provide comic relief to the people of Cleveland and Ohio.”

“Community leaders here are furious” at Mr. Henley’s appointment, said Christopher Carmody, the Mayor’s special assistant for education. “They made it clear to the school board before they voted for Henley that this is not someone who is going to foster constructive developments.”

The board further antagonized Cleveland leaders by naming Mr. Henley to serve on an “intergovernmental committee” of city and school-district officials that had been meeting monthly since Mayor White took office earlier this year.

In response, the Mayor announced that the city would no longer participate in the meetings, which were designed to coordinate city services with the needs of the district.

Mr. Carmody said that the Mayor, who had campaigned on a pledge of racial harmony in Cleveland, had “no choice” but to withdraw from the committee.

“I think they thought that it would send the wrong message to the community on what to expect on racial issues,” Mr. Carmody explained.

Efforts To Improve Schools

The nomination of Mr. Henley to the board thus far has not jeopardized two other efforts by the Mayor to improve the public-school system, the Mayor’s aide added. A group of city, school-district, and community leaders that has been meeting to discuss the progress of the desegregation case is continuing its work, he said. And the school board has given no sign that it will withdraw its support for the goals spelled out in Cleveland’s education summit, held last spring.

The Mayor’s decision to create the committee to talk about education issues drew a sharp rebuke from Mr. Atkins, who warned the Mayor over the summer that he would face a contempt-of-court citation if he interfered with the progress of the desegregation case. The Mayor is particularly interested in seeing the large-scale busing of students be “resolved,” Mr. Carmody said, because it has created so much racial discord in Cleveland.

Mr. Atkins said last week that he had no problem with the Mayor’s expressed interest in improving the city school system, but that the Mayor “needed to know a concern the plaintiffs have.”

“I said what I wanted to say,” Mr. Atkins said, “and he said what he wanted to say. That’s the end of it.”

State Takeover Touted

Despite a high level of interest in improving the city’s schools among the Cleveland business community and the communitywide participation in the education summit, there have been a growing number of calls for a change in the governance of the school system.

George Voinovich, the former Cleveland mayor who is the Republican candidate for governor, has urged that the state take over the Cleveland schools because the current board of education is incapable of running it. Mr. Voinovich and Ronald J. Suster, a state representative from Cleveland, have argued that a poor school system is hampering Cleveland’s recovery from economic decline.

Mr. Voinovich’s opponent, Anthony Celebrezze Jr., who recently received Mayor White’s endorsement, has indicated to the Mayor that he would assist Cleveland community leaders in an attempt to have the state take control of the school system if asked, Mr. Carmody said. However, he added, the Mayor is “pretty much dead set against” such a radical move.

Mr. Suster has filed a bill in the state legislature that is modeled after the Illinois legislation that overhauled the Chicago public-school system.

The measure would give cities with more than 20,000 residents the option of changing to a more participatory form of school governance, with councils in each school, Mr. Suster explained. The board of education in Cleveland would be reduced from seven to five members, all elected from districts instead of at-large.

“If it were to work,” Mr. Suster said of his bill, “we would see growth within the city of Cleveland. The neighborhoods are still suffering because of the schools.”

Another local legislator has introduced a bill that would give the mayor of Cleveland the authority to appoint school-board members.

But John F. Lewis, chairman of the education committee of the Greater Cleveland Roundtable, said the community is “wasting an inordinate amount of energy” by focusing solely on governance issues.

The high level of community and business support for the school system, demonstrated by the $16 million that has been raised for scholarships and to help students find jobs, shows that improvement can be made within the current system, Mr. Lewis suggested.

“If the board is taking leadership, that’s ideal,” he said. “In the meanwhile, we oughtn’t to use that as an excuse for not getting things done.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 1990 edition of Education Week as Cleveland Asks Court To Declare District ‘Unitary’


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