State Nullifies Cleveland Board Action Amid Feud Between Board and Tutela

By William Snider — June 07, 1989 8 min read
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The Cleveland board of education has improperly taken actions involving the district’s management and structure that directly conflict with a federal court’s desegregation orders, Ohio’s superintendent of public instruction ruled last week.

The action marked the first time that the state has voided a Cleveland board resolution using powers granted by a 1987 court order, a state official said last week.

The court order requires state officials to monitor the district’s desegregation efforts and approve any changes sought by school officials.

In a May 31 letter to district officials, Franklin B. Walters, the state superintendent of instruction, declared “null and void” a resolution by the Cleveland board that placed the district’s legal department under the direct control of the board rather than the district’s superintendent.

The letter also requires the board to seek the superintendent’s recommendations before hiring new employees, specifically for the legal department and a new architect’s office, according to G. Robert Bowers, an assistant state superintendent.

Adds to Ongoing Dispute

The state’s action adds a new element to an ongoing and very public feud between board members and Superintendent Alfred D. Tutela.

In recent months the board has taken several actions that have effectively reduced the superintendent’s authority. And his proposals for implementing full-day kindergartens throughout the district and creating thematic high schools have languished in board committees.

Last month, board members were sharply criticized in the local media for considering a resolution that would have denied the superintendent a seat on the dias with board members during public meetings. Board members claimed that the measure was designed to improve the public’s ''confused image of the management and direction of the district.”

“It’s the only way they can feel tall physically,” Mr. Tutela said before the seating language was withdrawn by its sponsor. “They could put me in a closet in the basement of a garage and they would still be worried about me.”

Some board members admit that the dispute has become personal and charge that Mr. Tutela backed the formation of a slate of five candidates, including only two incumbents, who in April began actively campaigning for November’s scheduled school-board election.

“That was so patently stupid,” said Joseph A. Costanzo, an incumbent who was not included on the slate. Mr. Costanzo was appointed to the board last year by a probate judge after the board deadlocked three-to-three on filling a vacant board seat.

“We made a mistake with this guy, he’s power hungry,” said James Carney, another board member.

‘Permeated by Politics’

Mr. Tutela, who is currently in the third year of a five-year contract, responded to the charges by saying he did not personally know some of the candidates.

The superintendent charged in turn that the board violated both his constitutional rights and his contract when it amended the district’s bylaws last month to bar him from participating in district politics.

“At the same time, they go around soliciting my administrators” for campaign contributions, he said.

Several observers said that the unusual number of board seats open in the fall election have heightened the political tensions in a district with an established reputation for political turmoil.

“The current relationship between the board and the superintendent is strained at best and non-existent half the time,” said Richard A. DeColibus, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union.

As a result, he added, policy formation in the district is “basically in a state of paralysis.”

“Everything seems permeated by the politics,” said Barbara Simmons Holmes, executive director of the Cleveland School Budget Coalition, a local watchdog group. “The politics are so thick that the issues get lost and personalities take the front seat.”

‘It’s Embarrassing’

Even business leaders in Cleveland, who say they strive to remain aloof from the school system’s politics while dramatically increasing their involvement in school-busi8ness partnerships, decried the board’s recent actions.

Business leaders and school officials last month announced that corporate partners had been paired with each of the district’s 12 comprehensive high schools in an effort they said would require far more commitment and energy from both parties than the traditional adopt-a-school approach.

Later the same day, the board was scheduled to consider the seating resolution.

“It’s embarassing for the whole community,” said John Lewis, a lawyer and chairman of the education committee of the Greater Cleveland Business Roundtable.

“I have to ignore that kind of behavior,” he said. “I’m not going to let that get in the way of the education of the youngsters in this system.”

While there are some signs that community leaders and activist groups will prod voters to view the upcoming election as a referendum on the system’s political disputes, some observers say it is too early to tell whether voters who have become accustomed to the board’s perennial bickering can be roused to issue a mandate for change.

“I am glad to say that this community has resisted the temptation to give up on its schools,” said Steven A. Minter, director of the Cleveland Foundation, at the group’s annual meeting last month.

“I am encouraged by signs of renewed citizen involvement in the city schools ... and I hope it will be evident in the upcoming board election, whose outcome will determine how far and at what pace reform will proceed,” he added.

‘Loss of Faith’

Both the superintendent and his opponents claim that their disagreements with each other are motivated less by politics and personality clashes than by fundamental differences on educational issues.

“I’ve suffered a loss of faith in his judgment,” said Mr. Carney.

“He means well on educational issues, but he really doesn’t have a feel for them,” he said. “If anything is new or trendy, he grabs for it.”

The superintendent argues that a majority of the board’s members are resistant to trying nontraditional approaches even though the current methods have failed to change such indicators of lagging student performance as a 50 percent dropout rate.

“If we keep doing things the same way, we’ll keep getting the same product,” he said.

Others say the board’s actions have been motivated by a desire to control jobs and contracts, particularly in the case of a $40-million capital-improvement plan adopted last year.

The board’s rejection of a construction and renovation plan proposed by the superintendent in favor of one of their own devising was one of several instances where it has acted “clearly for political purposes, and the kids be damned,” said Wesley A. Dumas, a board member. Mr. Dumas’s support for the superintendent has increasingly placed him on the losing side of board battles.

Desegregation Issue Divisive

One of the primary issues dividing both the board and the citizenry is the district’s ongoing desegregation plan. The plan has also brought new players into the debate, including the state and a court-ordered office on school monitoring and community relations.

Cleveland’s court-ordered student-assignment plan has been called among the most successful in the nation; the system is often cited as the largest urban district with racially balanced enrollments in every school.

But the mandatory student busing is only one of more than a dozen major changes called for in the court’s 1979 remedial orders, which also extended to such areas as parent involvement in the schools, the district’s financial and management structures, and virtually every other phase of its operations.

Some board members, including Mr. Costanzo and Mr. Carney, argue that the district has fulfilled its obligations under the court orders and should be allowed to return to neighborhood schools complemented by voluntary desegregation mechanisms.

Other board members and some minority leaders argue that the district is a long way from achieving compliance with the court’s orders.

Petitioning the court for dismissal of the case “is really a grand waste of time,” said the Rev. Myron McMickle, president of the Cleveland naacp.

“The district has not yet finished its work,” he said, citing unmet or4ders for management and finance reforms and for human-relations training for teachers and staff.

State officials and Mr. Tutela stand in the middle, saying that the orders have served their purpose as a basis for substantial improvements in the district and that the city’s schools must not be allowed to become resegregated after the court order is lifted.

‘Unfinished Agenda’

Some of Mr. Tutela’s current reform proposals, including a major expansion in the number of choices available to students and their parents, stem from a state-funded report released last year that called on the district to adopt some form of “controlled choice” assignment plan.

Only a few community leaders have thus far endorsed a second recommendation of the report that would create an interdistrict desegregation program between Cleveland and its neighboring suburbs.

Both state officials, who as defendants in the case have been ordered to fund half of the district’s desegregation efforts, and Mr. Tutela argue that the district will soon complete a court-approved “unfinished compliance agenda.” It thus should be able to petition for dismissal of the case by the end of the year, they say.

But Daniel J. McMullen, director of the office of school monitoring and community relations, noted that “the court states clearly that simply completing that agenda was not per se proof of compliance with the court’s remedial orders.”

“They will have to produce verifiable evidence of such compliance,” he said.

Mr. Bowers of the state department said the state’s recent actions against the district should not derail the plans to seek an end to the desegregation litigation.

But one Cleveland board member indicated last week that he would advise the board to “just say no” to the state’s edicts.

“As far as I’m concerned, the law department reports directly to us until we’re told otherwise by the courts,” Mr. Carney said.

If the board resists the state superintendent’s May 31 ruling, “we would have no alternative but to consider seeking corrective action through the courts,” Mr. Bowers said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 1989 edition of Education Week as State Nullifies Cleveland Board Action Amid Feud Between Board and Tutela


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