Troubled Cleveland Schools Near a 'Turning Point'

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Two important events in the next few weeks may produce significant changes within Cleveland's deeply troubled public school system. In an election that has attracted more than the usual interest among civic and business leaders, voters will elect a majority of the school board. And a federal judge is expected to rule on proposals to restructure the system. To take a closer look at the complex situation confronting the city's voters and the judge, Assistant Editor Peggy Caldwell spent several days in Cleveland interviewing administrators, parents, community leaders, and state and local officials. Here is her report.

By Peggy Caldwell

Cleveland--Around the turn of the century, a civic leader here named Charles Bryan, embarrassed by the city's ramshackle railroad station, had a billboard erected on the way into town. His message to visitors: "Don't Judge This Town by This Depot."

Today, the slogan might be: "Don't Judge This Town by Its School System."

For while the city has been succeeding in making the slow, painful transition from a manufacturing center to a service economy--and in changing its dowdy image--the Cleveland public schools, says one activist, "are the black eye on a city that has turned itself around."

The sentiment, widely shared, is based on these documented facts:

Student achievement in Cleveland's high schools is well below national norms.

Student dropout rates are well above the national norm.

Enrollment has been declining steadily; in the past decade, the system has lost half its students.

Middle-class families, black and white alike, have all but deserted the public schools.

Five years after a federal judge ordered the schools desegregated, educational opportunities have broadened little for anybody, black or white. Says one civic leader, "All we've accomplished is moving kids from one place to another."

For five of the past six years, the school system has been unable--or unwilling--to live within its means. It faces a $29-million deficit next year, not counting any wage increases for employees.

The State of Ohio, which prides itself on local control of public schools, has taken the unprecedented step of placing the Cleveland schools in financial receivership.

Inevitable Problems

The Cleveland schools are by no means unique. Change the names, retouch the picture here and there, and it could be a portrait of Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, or any one of a dozen other major American cities. The perception of deterioration and disarray in big-city schools is widespread, and poll after poll documents the steady erosion of public confidence in tax-supported educational systems across the nation. So familiar have "the problems of the schools" become that they are commonly perceived to be almost inevitable and insurmountable.

Many observers agree that some of them are in fact beyond the control of local educa-tors and policy makers. The nation's persistent economic ills and a declining birth rate have contributed to local financial crises, prompted school closings, and caused teacher layoffs.

Federal and state social programs to improve racial balance in schools, to mainstream the handicapped, and to establish bilingual programs have placed new and complex burdens on systems ill-prepared to cope with them and have given rise to a paralyzing web of legal entanglements and judicial interventions.

But if Cleveland's situation is representative, the plight of urban school systems may be as much a failure of local community and professional leadership as it is the result of external forces.

In this city, there is growing evidence that many of those charged with the welfare of the school system simply were unable or unwilling to fulfill that responsibility. Many of Cleveland's woes, the evidence suggests, were brought on by community neglect and by predictable and preventable mistakes.

Finger-pointing, confusion over lines of authority, and squabbling are commonplace at the system's headquarters. Staff allegiances are divided between the superintendent of schools and the powerful court-appointed desegregation administrator.

Legendary confrontations have taken place between an intransigent school board and Frank J. Battisti, the irascible federal judge who in 1976 ordered the desegregation plan. The school board often has been a political springboard, and many observers insist that students' interests are subordinated to the political ambitions of board members, particularly with regard to the desegregation order.

Impending Crisis

The administration and the board failed to heed unmistakable symptoms of the impending financial crisis, to make even rudimentary predictions of the system's need for money and personnel to obey, even if under protest, the judge's orders, analyses by state authorities and outside groups have concluded.

As the Cleveland school system deteriorated, critics say, the city's powerful business community--those with the wherewithal to force change and halt the decline--failed to act. Most influential executives and politicians, they point out, either live in one of suburban Cuyahoga County's small school districts or send their children to private schools.

Because so many of the system's problems are not beyond control, there is widespread hope in the community that, with changes in practices and perhaps personnel, the once-proud system can be redeemed. Though they disagree on the causes and remedies of the schools' malaise, many Clevelanders have reached a consensus on one thing: This year is the turning point for the 70,000-student system.

"I think the system is on its way back," says Superintendent Peter P. Carlin. "We've weathered two strikes, desegregation, everything. Any system that has gone through what we've gone through in the last three years and survived has accomplished something."

There are many in Cleveland, apparentlyincluding Judge Battisti, who would like nothing better than to share Mr. Carlin's optimism, but who consider him one of the major obstacles to progress. Nothing less than a complete change in the district's leadership, they say, will end what one observer has called the "institutional paralysis" of the system.

"I'm trying to visualize something that would help kids, but right now, I can't see it," said Mary E. Conner, mother of 12 and a member of an advisory commission on desegregation. "You can just go down the line and count everybody who has not done enough to make sure we have good schools where kids get a good basic education.

"They've been doing things one way so long," she continued, "that it's like they can't change. Or don't want to change."

In its recent history, the district has been shaped largely by strong-willed characters: Paul W. Briggs, the former superintendent; U.S. District Judge Battisti, who ordered desegregation and is now considering plans for an organizational overhaul of the system; Donald R. Waldrip, appointed by the judge to oversee the desegregation plan; and a fractious school board--none of whose members has a child in the public schools--that has resisted the judge's every move.

From the mid-1960's to 1978, Superintendent Briggs ran a highly centralized, autocratic organization. Mr. Briggs was more interested, his critics say, in construction thanstruction. Cleveland was building new schools until the year before he left--even though enrollment had peaked in the late 1960's.

"It was kind of an emperor's-new-clothes situation," recalls Daniel R. Elliott Jr., a local corporate executive and chairman of the advisory commission for monitoring desegregation. "He had for a decade the unstinting and totally ignorant support of the business community. There were all kinds of ribbon-cuttings, and very little else.

'Cracks in the Dam'

"The first cracks in the dam started to occur in the early 70's, when the radical-fringe crowd started asking questions," Mr. Elliott said. "People were asking, 'What are the reading scores?' And he'd say, 'I don't give out reading scores."'

Soon came the desegregation suit, Reed v. Rhodes, and a study of racial isolation in the system sponsored by the Cleveland Foundation.

The city, halved by the Cuyahoga River, was at the time as segregated as any in the nation. Judge Battisti subsequently ruled that the school board, through its selection of sites for new buildings and through other policies, was guilty of exacerbating the segregation.

Financial problems also were mounting, although that was not generally known then.el10lBy the time Mr. Briggs retired in 1978, the district reportedly was millions of dollars in debt. It had frequently paid its operating expenses from funds set aside to pay off building bonds--a practice that not only violated state law, but also obscured the district's true financial picture.

One financial analyst has likened Mr. Briggs' management of the system to "running a drugstore out of a cigar box."

Since then, the district has stayed afloat only by extraordinary measures. For three of the past four years, schools have opened late to defer expenditures to the following year--solving the immediate cash problem but compounding the next year's deficit.

Twice in three years, the system has tapped a state emergency-loan fund, for a total of nearly $40 million. Next year, it must pay back approximately $15 million, or nearly 7 percent of the budget, on a loan that Mr. Carlin, the current superintendent, says he is not sure will be needed.

And the system has persistently violated a cardinal rule of public finance by using one-time revenues, such as the savings from an 11-week strike and a delinquent-tax settlement from the Penn Central Railroad, to pay for recurring expenses.

Although the city schools' local tax base has remained static since 1970, state support has grown dramatically, and has slowed only inthe past two years. Ohio's school-finance formula includes extra money for districts with high concentrations of poor children. And it includes a "cost-of-doing-business" bonus for urban systems. Together, these yield some $25 million extra for the Cleveland schools, or more than 10 percent of the system's budget.

"The financial collapse was predictable," said David K. McClurkin, the financial administrator appointed under the terms of the state receivership. "There was no catastrophic loss of revenue and no unforeseeable cost growth other than some share of the desegregation cost, which was almost an elective burden because the board took the confrontive course."

A financial analysis prepared by the Citizens' Council for Ohio Schools, an independent organization, bears out Mr. McClurkin's contention. If the system's officials had adopted even an unsophisticated method of revenue projection in 1977, basing estimates on the experience of the previous five years, they could have developed remarkably accurate, if conservative, forecasts of the system's income--and could have planned accordingly.

Instead, the board and administration budgeted ad hoc, laying off employees months after they were warned that staff reductions were needed to keep the budget in balance, closing schools only when ordered to do so by the federal court (and still operating half-empty schools), and spending one-time revenues for recurring expenses, thereby deepening future deficits. Symptoms of impending financial crashes often were termed temporary "cash-flow problems" by the administration; at other times, the signs were simply ignored, according to the Citizens' Council report and other sources.

Desegregation, though costly and blamed by some for the system's unbalanced books, has not alone caused the deficit. Since 1978, the first-year students were bused, approximately $32 million has been spent on desegregation, and another $30 million was budgeted for this school year. But up to half that amount, according to the Citizens' Council report, has been spent on security, staff training, and other functions that would have been necessary even without busing.

Critics of the Cleveland schools' leadership often point to Columbus, a large urban system that has held up far better under similar pressures, including court-ordered desegregation.

Strong Management

The Citizens' Council report points out--and state figures verify--that Cleveland had 11 percent more students than Columbus in 1980, but employed nearly one-third more people and spent 43.6 percent more money. Strong management and a commitment to make the best of desegregation have helped to make the difference between the two systems, the report says.

"[The Cleveland] system has not even planned in the near term," Mr. McClurkin said. "They probably felt they would get bailed out, because the public is fairly forgiving. What they didn't [comprehend] was that they were flouting the court and taxing their credibility. Need doesn't get levies passed. Emergencies don't get levies passed. Credibility does."

Two years of stringent control over expenditures and personnel would restore the system to solvency, Mr. McClurkin added. "If you can get through '82," he said, "you can make it."

While enrollment has dropped precipitously over the past decade, neither school closings nor layoffs have kept pace. Excluding bus drivers hired for desegregation, the ratio of "classified" (non-teaching) employees per 1,000 students doubled from 1970 to 1980.

At the same time, however, some classes remain unmanageably large--despite the lower pupil-teacher ratio overall--and well outside state accreditation guidelines. One elementary school was cited by state authorities last year for having 42 or more students in each of

its sixth-grade classes. One state official recently said Cleveland has made some progress in complying with the accreditation guidelines, but he held out little hope of full compliance in instructional areas, even though compliance was a condition of the $40-million emergency loan.

"Cleveland is not poor," said John M. Parsons, a state school-finance official who heads a state advisory committee overseeing the district. "It's not poor in money, and it's not poor in people. But there's very poor organization in the secondary schools, and the elementary schools are paying the price."

The toll on students has been high. Busing itself, considering the vehement opposition of the community, has gone remarkably well, but instruction has not, particularly in the high schools.

The district's records show a slight improvement in the reading scores of elementary-school students, but the scores are still below national norms. In the high schools, however, last year's scores painted a discouraging picture. Half the students in some schools scored in the ''below-average" range on reading comprehension; 23 percent, according to national norms, would be expected to do so. The higher the grade level, the lower the scores tended to be.

But that was not, apparently, because the system does a good job of keeping low achievers in school. Cleveland's dropout rate is approximately 40 percent, according to a report prepared by the court-appointed Office on School Monitoring and Community Relations, compared to 25 percent nationally. In some high schools, it is as high as 57 percent.

Curriculum Neglected

Principals and teachers complain that the district's administrators have been so caught up in fighting the court--and each other--that they have neglected the curriculum. Moreover, the system has been slow to put in place the reading and counseling programs ordered as part of Judge Battisti's desegregation plan.

"The tragedy of the Cleveland schools," said Nancy Oakley, a parent of five Cleveland-schools graduates who runs a church-sponsored reading program for adults, "is that they know what all the problems are, and the solutions are no secret, but they're doing nothing about it."

Ms. Oakley and others say one problem is the low expectations local educators have of students, most of whom now are black, poor, or both.

That problem is illustrated, she says, by the suggestion of one administrator, for example, that black students' test scores be measured not against national norms, but against the averages attained by other minority students--"as if," Ms. Oakley said, "there were two job markets, one for black kids and one for white kids."

"I've seen kids who are walking around in a daydream--no hope, no nothing," commented Ms. Conner, who said she has spent hundreds of hours in the schools as a volunteer. "It's more than money. When the money was there, the quality of education was still going down.

"I've seen parents made to feel so unwelcome and so unwanted that they'd give up. I've seen children being screamed at and hollered at for little bitty things," she continued.3"They divide kids up: 'These kids will learn, these kids are medium, and these kids you don't have to worry about because they're not going to learn anything anyway. That child's from a broken home, his mother's divorced, the family's on welfare--you don't have to worry about him.' Well, it shouldn't make a bit of difference."

Internal political problems also persist. Judge Battisti last year proclaimed the board and administration incompetent to carry out his desegregation order and appointed Mr. Waldrip to the newly created position of desegregation administrator, with a separate staff and budget.

Conflict of Interest

Mr. Waldrip's performance--and what many consider his high-handedness--has been a disappointment to those who supported the busing order. He has been accused of a con6flict of interest over his choice of a reading program. His directives to the superintendent fill a three-inch-thick binder. On several occasions, principals and other middle-level managers have received conflicting instructions from Mr. Carlin and Mr. Waldrip.

"I'm not fighting with anybody," maintains Mr. Carlin, who nearly was fired last spring. "I've offered to sit down and talk, but he won't even do that. You get to the point where you extend olive branches, and nobody takes them."

At that high organizational level, at least, the problems may be resolved soon--by Cleveland voters and, once again, by the federal court.

Four of the seven seats on the school board are up for election next month, and business and civic groups are taking a greater-than-usual interest in the races.

In addition, Judge Battisti is nowel75lconsidering two proposals for restructuring the system. One plan, advanced by the judge's monitoring office, maintains that "the system is so dysfunctionally organized that it cannot function effectively--not even under one head." It suggests that the superintendent and the desegregation administrator function jointly as the system's chief executive, with Mr. Carlin regaining control over areas as they come into compliance with the court order.

Two Plans Agree

The other plan was negotiated by the school board and the plaintiffs in the desegregation suit; it holds that the dual administration imposed by the court is the problem.

The two plans, however, agree on most items, including decentralized authority and improved controls over finance and personnel. And, sources close to the litigation say,3whichever of the plans the judge chooses, neither Mr. Carlin nor Mr. Waldrip is likely to last more than another year. Judge Battisti strongly indicated this month that he would not consider easing his control over the schools so long as Mr. Carlin remains in office. The superintendent's contract expires next summer, and Mr. Waldrip serves at the pleasure of the court.

At this point, many observers say, almost any change would be welcome--but changes in structure and personnel, they say, would be only the start of rebuilding what was once considered a superior school system. Many parents, say Mary E. Conner and other parent leaders, are ready to give up on the schools altogether if they do not see progress soon.

"I would really like to see something good happen in this city," Ms. Conner said. "I don't know if I'm going to live to see it, because the problems didn't start overnight. But something has got to give in this city. Something has got to give."

Vol. 01, Issue 07

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