Reform Plan Unveiled for Cleveland Schools

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Nearly a year after a state takeover, the Cleveland public schools are still wrestling with a massive debt and poor student performance.

But last month, a handful of signs suggested that help was on its way for the 74,000-student district. Its state-appointed superintendent unveiled a broad reform plan that local business leaders stand behind. And a number of community groups proposed other changes in the system's governance--including the suggestion that Mayor Michael R. White appoint the school board.

Some observers held up the proposals as the last, best hope for the beleaguered district, which continues to suffer setback after setback.

District officials announced last week that they would postpone a March tax-levy vote after civic groups criticized them for seeking money without showing improvement. The delay means the schools will have to borrow about $70 million to get through this year, adding to their $145 million debt. The district's annual budget last year was $500 eds: figs coming jr

"We can't go on much longer given the debt situation here in the district," said James Penning, the chief operating officer. "But it's pretty hard for the community to support a levy when the state is here in control."

'State of Crisis'

The federal judge who has overseen the district's desegregation efforts and ordered the takeover also announced last month that he will step down from the case in March. His replacement will be the third judge involved in district affairs in just over a year.

U.S. District Judge Robert B. Krupansky declared the district in a "state of crisis" early last year and turned over control to the state schools chief. (See Education Week, March 15, 1995.)

Judge Krupansky said internal strife, management problems, and a financial crisis were keeping the district from delivering its educational services and complying with its court order. A leadership void left by the departure of Superintendent Sammie Campbell Parrish and two other top officials also raised the judge's concern.

Late last monthdec, three of the district's seven school board members also stepped down after deciding not to seek re-election. A fourth had resigned earlier last fall. All cited frustration with their diminishing powers since the takeover as a reason for leaving.

This month, the board will swear in two members who were elected in November. Another was appointed in October and one incumbent was re-elected.

Janis Purdy, the executive director of the Citizens League of Greater Cleveland, said the new crop of board members is not even as reform-minded as the previous board. She attributed this, in part, to fewer people being attracted to the job since the state gained control. To remedy the situation, her group is also supporting a move to change the way board seats are filled.

Although the league has not gone as far as other community groups in proposing that the city's popular mayor appoint all board members, Ms. Purdy said she might favor some combination of appointments by Gov. George V. Voinovich of Ohio, Mayor White, the City Council, and the legislature.

The group is also lobbying for Superintendent Dick Boyd's reform plan, which relies heavily on site-based management to turn the system around.

"This will give parents and citizens much greater authority to participate in decisionmaking--much more than we have now at the board level," Ms. Purdy said.

Road to Recovery?

Mr. Boyd, a state deputy superintendent named to the district post last year by the state schools chief, devised the plan with the help of the Cleveland Initiative for Education, a coalition of local corporations and philanthropies.

Under the plan, principals, teachers, and parents would have more control over a local school's budget and curriculum. It also proposes revamping the central administration so that it supports decisionmaking at the school level.

What's more, the superintendent recommended that the board steer away from the district's day-to-day operations. Instead, according to his plan, board members would focus on such tasks as setting student-achievement goals and insuring sound financial practices for the district.

Rosemary Herpel, the interim director of the Cleveland Initiative, said the organization plans to help carry out the reforms if they continue to win broad support. She hopes to enlist corporate sponsors to guide the first schools to adopt local decisionmaking under the proposed plan.

But first, the system will have to right itself.

It was unclear last week how the district would deal with its debt, but state auditors are expected to release a detailed report on its finances in March. State officials have also hinted that they may recommend cutbacks in staff, particularly nonteaching employees.

On top of its financial worries, the district is still under a federal court order to desegregate.

Last week, however, the state education department asked Judge Krepansky to let parents decide where their children should go to school, regardless of their race. The judge is expected to weigh their argument before he steps down.

If the request is granted, it could end the district's practice of busing students for racial balance--and free school officials to move on to their other priorities.

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