In Cleveland, Mayor White Takes Control

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In the auditorium of his high school alma mater, Mayor Michael R. White officially took the reins of Cleveland's beleaguered school system last week, days after he named a nine-member school board drawn from a broad range of political, economic, and social backgrounds.

The ceremony at Glenville High School brought to an end more than three years of state oversight of the 76,500-student district, Ohio's largest and long considered one of the most troubled in the country.

A state law passed last year returned the district to a form of local control similar to that adopted by the Illinois legislature for Chicago in 1995. It gave Mr. White the power to name the new board and to appoint a chief executive officer to run the system. That appointment is expected in the next few months.

At the emotional ceremony, which had many of the elements of a Sunday church service, the 47-year-old mayor brought a cheering crowd to its feet when he stood before the newly appointed board members and thanked everyone, including God, for "returning schools to the people of Cleveland."

"We begin a special moment in time today," Mr. White told the assembled students and well-wishers. "A special moment created and built by all of us."

Board Chairman Named

Mayor White had initially intended to introduce the new school board at the Sept. 9 event. But fearing that an expected announcement about the ownership of the Cleveland Browns, the city's National Football League franchise, would upstage his board members, he released the names of the appointees at a news conference on Sept. 5.

The board includes five men and four women; five are African-American and four are white. There are two law professors, a financial planner, an investment banker, a trade executive, a construction company official, a restaurateur, a school attendance coordinator, and a consultant.

At the gathering last week, Mr. White named the Rev. Hilton O. Smith, the corporate vice president for community affairs at Turner Construction Co., as the new board's chairman. In a short speech, Mr. Smith said the board's task was a "calling from God."

"My fellow board members and I accept responsibility," the chairman said. "Today we're rolling up the sleeves of courage, of compassion, of control, of accountability, and of responsibility to work hard."

Mr. White selected the board from 21 finalists drawn up this summer by a nominating panel, which narrowed down a list of some 240 candidates. No former members of the city's last elected school board, which was dissolved by the mayoral-control law, made the cut.

The event marked both a beginning and an end for the city and its schools. In 1995, a federal judge declared the district, which had long been plagued by debt and low student achievement, to be in a "state of crisis" and placed it under state control.

'Almighty Guidance'

In an effort to restore control to local officials, Ohio lawmakers passed the law last year that transferred power to the mayor. ("Mayor To Get School Control in Cleveland," July 9, 1997.)

The judge who lifted the 1995 ruling, George W. White--the same judge who earlier this year declared that Cleveland had fulfilled its legal obligations to desegregate its schools--was on the stage at Glenville High, wedged on a small white chair between the state schools superintendent, John M. Goff, and Mayor White, who is no relation.

In a short speech, Judge White said he has asked for "Almighty guidance in ... bringing quality education to the children of the city of Cleveland" and advised the new school board to do the same.

Though many in Cleveland have welcomed the return of the schools to local control, not everyone here agrees that handing the district to the mayor is the best solution.

"This is all a big sham," said Donald Sneed, a community activist who booed the mayor's speech. Mr. Sneed wore a T-shirt that read "Give Us Back the Vote, Repeal House Bill 269," referring to the state law that gave control of the schools to the mayor.

Though initially opposed to the transfer, several state lawmakers from the city, the Cleveland Teachers Union, and community groups including the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, dropped their opposition earlier this year.

Joining the Club

Mayor White joins a short list of big-city mayors--including Boston's Thomas M. Menino and Chicago's Richard M. Daley--who have assumed responsibility for school districts after years of unfulfilled promises and dashed hopes.

Mayoral takeovers come at a time when the mantra of schools is "accountability" and when mayors are often perceived as successful reformers, said Michael W. Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University. "Mayors are now viewed as public managers who know how to get things done," he said. "In the cases of Boston and Chicago, the mayors have said: 'I'm in charge. Judge my school programs, and hold me responsible.'"

Most districts involved in such transfers of powers, he added, were plagued by money troubles, teacher unrest, and a poor image.

"For the public, what's been very confusing becomes clear: There's a clear point of accountability--a visible figure," Mr. Kirst said. "Another effect is that mayors now know how to control the media," and schools, under their guidance, are seen in a more positive light.

In Cleveland, even if student achievement barely budged under the state's control, many people credit the takeover with streamlining the bureaucracy and, after extensive audits, cleaning up school finances.

The two state-appointed superintendents, Richard A. Boyd and James W. Penning, did "a good job in getting the system up off the bottom and preparing it to move ahead," said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, an organization of urban districts. "If Mayor White is committed to taking the next steps and has the latitude and will to do it, then I'm optimistic."

But others, including some teachers here, are taking a more guarded approach, saying they've heard rosy promises of a bright future many times before.

'It's All Politics'

"Schools cannot solve social ills. We can't fill all the hats," said Melvin Jacobs, who has taught math at Anton Grdina Elementary School for 30 years.

The 660-student, pre-K-6 school is located on Cleveland's notorious East Side, miles from the gleaming high rises, new sports arenas, and fancy restaurants of a downtown prospering from what, under Mayor White, has been dubbed the "Cleveland comeback."

"And until [city officials] acknowledge the baggage that these kids bring to school each day, I don't see how things can change," Mr. Jacobs said during a brief respite from the chaos of lunchroom duty. "It's all politics," he added. "Great ideas have come and gone. To sell it to me, you've got to prove it to me."

Pamela Hummer, a preschool teacher who has been at the school for 22 years, said that she has been alarmed the mayor's emphasis on the word "accountability."

"Give us the resources, supplies, and staff-development opportunities that we need, and then talk about accountability," she said in a brief interview between giving her tiny charges a test. "Make me accountable for things I have control over."

Coverage of urban education is underwritten in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

Vol. 18, Issue 2, Pages 1, 12-13

Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as In Cleveland, Mayor White Takes Control
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