Mayor To Get School Control In Cleveland

By Beth Reinhard — July 09, 1997 4 min read

More than two years after Ohio took over a Cleveland school system loaded with debt, red tape, and failing students, the legislature is poised to hand the district over to Mayor Michael R. White.

The Senate passed a bill last week empowering the mayor to appoint the top administrator and school board for the 72,000-student system. The House passed a similar bill in May, and Gov. George V. Voinovich has pledged to sign the final version.

“This gives us the opportunity to have direct accountability in an individual who has the talents to turn the s stem around,” said Sen. Jeffrey D. Johnson, a Democrat. “I’m confident that over the next four years, the mayor will help streamline the bloated education bureaucracy in Cleveland.”

The bill adds Cleveland to the growing list of cities, including Chicago, Boston, and Baltimore, where the mayor has been given broad authority over the public schools in an effort to overcome the extraordinary academic and financial woe common to urban school systems. (See Education Week, Aug. 7, 1996, and April 16, 1997.)

Court Challenge Likely

Before the Cleveland schools return to local control, approval is required from the federal court that ordered the state takeover in 1995 after declaring the system to be in a “state of crisis.” (See Education Week, March 15, 1995.)

And a group of Cleveland lawyers, many of whom have been active in school or civil rights issues, are preparing a lawsuit claiming that the establishment of an appointed school board violates the state constitution.

Under the bill, city voters would not be able to choose school officials for another four years, when they would vote on whether to keep an appointed school board or return to an elected one.

The Cleveland Teachers’ Union and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which have been rallying against the bill for the past few months in Cleveland and Columbus, have pledged their support for such a suit.

“The bill takes away the public’s right to vote for school officials and disrespects the parents of our children,” said Meryl T. Johnson, a spokeswoman for the 5,000-member union. “Putting the mayor in charge is not going to cause children to learn.”

Broad Powers

Backed by Cleveland religious and business leaders, the bill passed the House 56-37 on May 8. It was delayed in the Senate education committee for a few weeks while amendments were added and some legislators questioned whether the mayor had a concrete plan for the schools.

On July 2, after nearly three hours of debate, the Senate approved the bill 24-9.

A last-minute push by Democratic Sen. Judy Sheerer to amend it to include a referendum on expanding the mayor’s authority over the schools failed. The House is scheduled to vote on the amendments the week of July 22, before the bill goes to Gov. Voinovich.

Among the Senate bill’s provisions:

  • The mayor would appoint nine school board members from a slate of 18 candidates nominated by a panel of parents, educators, and business leaders. Two higher education officials would serve as nonvoting member of the board.
  • The mayor would appoint--and have the authority to fire--the chief executive officer.
  • The chief executive, with the board’s approval, would have the power to “take corrective action” at schools where achievement is lagging. Legislative aides said that could mean transferring or firing employees.
  • The CEO would be charged with creating a districtwide reform plan that would be evaluated by a committee chosen by the state superintendent. Every year, that committee would report to the legislature on the district’s progress.

“We need a school system where the person responsible for the overall condition of education can be held accountable,” Tom Needles, an executive assistant to Mr. Voinovich, said. “The governor believes the mayor has the political will to undertake substantive reform.”

Mayor’s Plans Unknown

Since the state took control of the Cleveland district two years ago, school official have restructured about $150 million in debt and helped pass a levy estimated to generate 67 million a year for the school system. The local tax increase was the first one passed since 1983.

Still, nearly every school building needs renovations, only 20 percent of 9th grader passed a recent state proficiency test, and only 75 percent of the students show up on an average school day.

Mayor White has been reticent in recent weeks about his plans for the district, saying that any remarks would be inappropriate before legislative action. He was not available for comment last week.

A Democrat and former state senator who was the first black student-body president at Ohio State University, Mr. White has unexpected political allies.

Most Democrats in the House and Senate voted against giving him sway over the schools, but most GOP members, who hold large majorities in both houses, supported the move. Gov. Voinovich, a Republican and a former mayor of Cleveland, has wholeheartedly backed the bill.

Uncertain Future

Many black community leaders and teachers’ union officials in Cleveland view Mr. White as an ally of white corporate executives and politicians who have benefited from the city’s downtown renaissance.

The mayor enraged teachers last year by intervening in tense contract negotiations. He also opposes the union’s crusade to limit property-tax breaks for businesses in an effort to pump more money from urban development into the schools. (See Education Week, June 4, 1997.)

How an administrative overhaul of the Cleveland schools would be felt when schools open on Aug. 27 remains to be seen. Lincoln C. Haughton, the principal of the city’s Glenville High School, said he hopes the new chief executive officer continue a program that gives schools more decisionmaking authority.

“I feel it’s a wonderful opportunity for schools to plot their own destiny,” Mr. Haughton said. “Who better to know what schools need than the people who labor there?”

A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week