Cincinnati Board Backs School-Overhaul Plan, Despite Union Protests

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Over the strong objections of the local teachers' union, the Cincinnati school board has given final approval to a five-year strategic plan aimed at profoundly changing the way the school district does business.

The reform blueprint, which is unusually broad in its scope, calls for reconfiguring schools and redistributing power over budgeting, staffing, and instruction to the school and classroom levels.

The plan has attracted interest beyond Ohio in part because Cincinnati is one of eight cities and two states testing reform programs developed by New American Schools, a national business-backed reform project based in Arlington, Va. ("Cincinnati Eyes Top-to-Bottom Restructuring," Oct. 23, 1996.)

The final version of the plan, adopted by the city's school board last month, revised a draft proposal approved in August. But those changes have failed to ease the severe strain that the plan has put on relations between the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers and officials of the 50,000-student district.

Opposition to some of the reforms has become a major sticking point in the negotiations over a teachers' contract to replace the one that expired Dec. 31.

"The hot-button issues all relate to the strategic plan," said Tom Mooney, the president of the union.

Specialty Jobs an Issue

Among other provisions, the plan calls for eliminating middle schools in favor of K-8 schools, combining grade levels into multiage classrooms, and requiring all schools to adopt a research-based design for school reform. The district is encouraging but not requiring schools to consider the New American Schools designs.

In a shift affecting all but the 11th and 12th grades, teachers will be grouped into teams that will be responsible for a particular group of students, preferably one composed of children of different ages and grade levels.

A team will stay with students for more than a single year and will be responsible for ensuring that the youngsters meet the district's academic standards for progressing to the next level.

At the heart of the clash between the union and the district is a feature that will allow each school to decide whether to employ specialized staff members, including art, music, and physical education teachers as well as librarians, psychologists, speech pathologists, and social workers.

The teachers' contract adopted in 1993 requires schools to employ such specialists, and the union sees those guarantees as a protection against stripping schools of needed programs and services.

But the district wants to allow schools to allocate their resources differently. For example, a school might decide to reduce class sizes or hire extra math instructors rather than maintain a full-time physical education teacher.

The district wants such decisions to reside with newly created "instructional leadership teams," which will be composed of the principal, parents, support-staff representatives, and various teachers, including the leader of each teacher team, a special education teacher, and a representative of the school's specialists.

The union, on the other hand, has taken the stance that schools should not be allowed to eliminate specialty positions unless two-thirds of the faculty votes to do so.

Specter of Cutbacks

The union ran radio ads and sent a letter to parents last fall charging that the reform plan was a thinly disguised attempt to trim spending. Union members also obtained 2,500 signatures on a petition protesting the district's stance. "The superintendent and board call this reform," Mr. Mooney, the CFT president, said last month. "We believe it simply paves the way for more cuts."

In an effort to dispel the specter of such cuts, district negotiators last month pledged to maintain funding for the specialized services to all schools through at least 1999. But they held fast to their position that the instructional leadership teams should be given flexibility over how to spend that money.

"Despite scare tactics by some, art, music, and physical education will be taught in our schools," Superintendent J. Michael Brandt said on Dec. 9, the day the board unanimously approved the revised plan. "This is not a budget-cutting plan."

In a move criticized strongly by the union, the district decided last month to bring in state labor officials to help resolve the impasse. Last week, the union organized a forum for parents and teachers at which union leaders began trying to organize opposition to the four of seven board members whose seats are up for grabs in November.

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