Cleveland Elections Are Seen as Pivotal For Schools'Future
CLEVELAND--Even for a city accustomed to rough-and-tumble local politics, the school-board race here this fall has offered an exceptional mix of clashing personalities and deeply divisive issues.
The bitterness of the contest for four seats on the seven-member Cleveland Board of Education is matched by the election's importance, candidates and observers say. The results are seen as likely to affect the prospects for a state takeover or other drastic changes in district governance.
While some two dozen candidates are competing, the real antagonists, observers here agree, are two prominent politicians who are not even on the ballot: Mayor Michael R. White and Board of Education President James M. Carney Jr.
As the Nov. 5 election approaches, Mayor White, with the support of much of the city's business community, is denouncing most of the current board members for policies he sees as wasteful and ineffective. The Mayor is backing a slate of four candidates he says will restore "sanity and morality" to the board.
Mr. Carney, officially on the sidelines, is nevertheless targeting the local "establishment." He asserts, for example, that one of the district's biggest problems is a loss of revenue due to tax abatements supported by the Mayor to promote development.
Although Mr. Carney has maintained that he is not backing any candidates, others hero insist that he has quietly lined up candidates who are loyal to him and have locally well-known family names that are considered a key asset in the crowded field of board hopefuls.
The Citizens League of Greater Cleveland, meanwhile, has called most of the school-board candidates "outrageously unprepared for office." The group, which has endorsed three of Mayor White's choices, said it was so "highly disappointed" with the field that it would examine the election process itself.
The group indicated it would consider pushing for the elimination of the current ballot system, which allows for a highly fragmented vote, or a switch to an appointed board.
Reflecting the 71,000-student school system's longstanding political divisions, the Cleveland superintendency has changed hands five times in nine years. One superintendent left a note citing his frustration with school-board politics when he committed suicide in 1985.
Lining Up Endorsements
As unions, community groups, and other political players continued to choose sides last week, 19 formal candidates and four write-in hopefuls remained in the race for three board seats with four-year terms. Three formal candidates and one write-in were in the running for a seat with a two-year term.
There is no primary in Cleveland school-board races; the seats will go to the candidates who win the largest shares of the vote, regardless of how small their percentages.
All four of the candidates endorsed by Mayor White are being backed by an organization of more than 100 ministers and community activists called the Coalition to Save Our Kids. Three of the four also have the backing of the city's main newspaper, The Plain Dealer.
The chief backer of candidates reported to be in Mr. Carney's camp is the United Auto Workers. Other labor unions are also likely to mobilize for candidates favored by Mr. Carney, according to local analysts.
The Cleveland Teachers Union appears to be hedging its bets. It has endorsed two of the Mayor's candidates, one candidate thought to have Mr. Carney's backing, and a third favored by the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
Divisions are also apparent in the city's patchwork of racially and ethnically distinct neighborhoods, overwhelmingly black to the east and white to the west.
Mr. Carney is heavily supported by the 50 percent of city residents who are white. The 47 percent of residents who are black appear politically divided, however.
The leadership of the black community tends to be split between the reform-minded Mr. White and more traditional black officials, among them the school board's vice president, Stanley E. Tolliver, who is not up for re-election, and Mildred R. Madison, a board member seeking reelection who is widely seen as the Mayors chief target for defeat.
Threat From 'Establishment'?
Due largely to an outflow of white residents, Cleveland's population has dropped by 12.8 percent during the last decade, to about 506,000. Among those who sold their homes and moved from the city last year, 34 percent cited dissatisfaction with poor schools or with mandatory busing as a major reason, according to a survey by Cleveland State University.
Almost without exception, other recent surveys have also found Clevelanders to be highly dissatisfied with their public schools. The city's voters have not passed a levy for schools since 1983, and prior to that had not passed one for 13 years.
In a recent interview, Mr. Carney, the board president, defended the board's record and maintained that the problems facing Cleveland schools are no different or worse than those faced by other urban districts.
Mr. Carney accused Mayor White of being part of a campaign by "an establishment" that "wants to run everything' and wants to seize control of the schools from the voters and their elected board. He defined this establishment as including the Mayor, Gov. George V. Voinovich, and corporate and religions leaders that Mr. Carney sees as having clout with The Plain Dealer.
In contrast to his antagonism toward the "establishment," Mr. Carney enjoys a good relationship with most of his fellow board members. He and Gary J. Kucinich Sr, the board's only other white member, usually vote together. The two are frequently joined by Mr. Tolliver, Ms. Madison, and Lawrence A. Lumpkin, who is also up for re-election.
The only issue that tends to clearly divide the two white and five black board members along racial lines is busing. But not all African-American members appear willing to take strong stands on the issue. When Mr. Carney last summer proposed pursuing an end to federal-court supervision of the district, he was joined only by Mr. Kucinich, but two members left the room before they could be asked to join other black members in opposing the proposal.
According to Mr. Carney, the election will focus heavily on busing and the "strict quotas" for student enrollment that schools must follow under a 14-year-old desegregation order.
"The image of this as a good school system basically ended when the [federal] judge [in the desegregation case] took it over," he said.
Mr. Carney also defined as a central issue the property-tax abatements that the city has granted to encourage business development.
Downtown Cleveland's 57-story Society Tower, for example, will cost the schools $2.3 million a year in lost revenues over two decades, according to critics of the abatement policy.
Role of Busing Questioned
Mayor White asserted in a recent interview that mandatory busing is not a real issue in the election, but a "straw man" that Mr. Carney and his allies attack for political gain.
"You can run every school bus in the city of Cleveland into the lake tomorrow, and you would still have a problem with education," Mr. White said.
A similar view was voiced by Carol S. Gibson, executive director of the Cleveland Initiative for Education, an umbrella group of businesses and philanthropies that have assisted the city schools. She contended that the school board has used the desegregation order as an excuse for everything from high dropout rates to leaky school roofs. Because resentment toward busing helps keep board members in power, she asserted, the board deliberately refuses to take steps to make busing less inconvenient to students.
Mayor White has accused Mr. Carney of raising the issue of busing, which the school board is largely powerless to step, in an attempt to stack the board with allies who will rubber-stamp his decisions and give him a reputation for effectiveness.
Then, Mr. White claims, Mr. Carney plans to make a bid for mayor.
Is There a 'Dublin Slate'?
Chris Carmody, the Mayor's special assistant, charged last month that Mr. Carney had recruited a so-called "Dublin slate," consisting of candidates with locally well-known Irish surnames, to run in the board election with Mr. Carney's behind-the-scenes backing.
A Plain Dealer editorial this month indicated a suspicion that Mr. Carney and his associates had quietly recruited Thomas J. Coyne, Thomas E. Gallagher, Mary Ann Kilbane, Helen M. Moffie, and Maureen Spellacy as candidates, and it urged readers not to vote for them. The newspaper and Mr. White's aides have also said the board president will likely endorse Joseph A. Costanzo, a former board member.
Mr. Carmody said that Mr. Carney, a well-to-do owner of several bowling alleys who is the sen of a local real-estate magnate, had spent more than $280,000 backing himself and five other candidates in the last board race. Mr. Carney won handily in the 1989 race and brought Mr. Kucinich into office with him.
"This is a man whose idea of a fundraiser is to sit down at his kitchen table and take out a checkbook," Mr. Carmody asserted, referring to the board president. "I'm sure he'll spend another $300,000 to put his candidates in place."
But Mr. Carney has denied putting anyone in the race. Noting the presence of what he described as "a lot of good candidates," he said late last month that he did not feel any need to make endorsements.
Mr. Carney added, however, that he would not be disappointed if some candidates were elected largely on the basis of their family names.
"Voters everywhere tend to vote for a name they are familiar with," he said.
'Sanity and Morality'
Mayor White late last month stood on the front steps of northeast Cleveland's Miles Standish Elementary School, which he attended as a child, and announced that he was endorsing two ministers as candidates "to restore some sanity and morality to the Cleveland school board."
The Mayor endorsed the Rev. Leon Lawrence, the black pastor of the east side's Greater Faith Baptist Church, for a four-year seat and the Rev. James Lumsden, the white pastor of the west side's Trinity United Church of Christ, for the two-year opening.
Calling his endorsements "anything but political," Mr. White said "we need men and women who can go to the board and not be seduced by the darker side of politics."
"All we get from the school board is more talk about politics, more talk about the court order, and more attempts to divide the community-black and white," the Mayor said.
Mayor White told the reporters present that the election may decide whether Cleveland can and should continue to entrust its schools to a popularly elected board.
"if the outcome is not an outcome for sanity and morality, this might be the last chance for the citizens of Cleveland to reform their own schools," he said.
"The calls for a state takeover," the Mayor predicted, "will be overwhelming" if poorly qualified candidates are elected.
Mayor White has since endorsed Susan Leonard, a community activist, and Lawrence Lumpkin, a current board member, as candidates for four-year seats.
The Mayor has called on his candidates to put the district's fiscal house in order, accusing the current board of refusing to adequately downsize what he sees as the district's bloated administration and of making "dubious" capital-improvement expenditures for the sake of getting political support from businesses.
"There is as much patronage in the Cleveland public school system as there are fish in Lake Erie," Mr. White said.
Financial State Criticized
Mayor White has been joined in his criticism of the district's financial affairs by Governor Voinovich and Ted Sanders, Ohio's new state superintendent of public instruction. Mr. Sanders this month refused to accept the district's $421-million budget for the current fiscal year, which must be submitted for the state superintendent's approval under the terms of the desegregation order.
He cited an analysis by the state education department that concluded that the district's budget practices would exhaust its reserve funds and put it in the red by $6 million in fiscal year 1992, $51 million in 1993, and $57 million in 1994.
The city school board has since proposed additional cuts in staff, but said its actions were motivated by the concerns of the district's treasurer, not by the state.
Frank J. Huml, the district's superintendent, has acknowledged that the system might face bankruptcy within two years, but he has expressed confidence that this year's budget can be brought into line.
Mr. Carney and several of his fellow board members have dismissed the state budget report as part of a plan by the state to take over the district's schools.
They noted that Governor Voinovich has prepared legislation that would allow Cleveland residents to vote to eliminate the elected board and to replace it for two years or more with a board appointed by the state and the mayor.
Saying that the system already is largely under the control of the state and the federal court, Mr. Carney argued that what the Governor "is talking about is curing the district's problems with the same disease--more bureaucracy, more state takeover."
The Governor had been expected to formally release his takeover plan last summer. He backed off after Mayor White, a political ally, publicly objected to the idea.
Whatever the poll results on Nov. 5, meanwhile, it seems unlikely that they will bring a quick end to the rancorous politics that have plagued the system for more than a decade.
"Ultimately," said Cheryl Reade, a leader of the Coalition for School Board Excellence, a nonpartisan civic group, "there has to be a change in the way people do politics and do business."
Vol. 11, Issue 08, Pages 1, 18Published in Print: October 23, 1991, as Cleveland Elections Are Seen as Pivotal For Schools'Future