Crucial Levy Goes Down in Cleveland

Loss Could Mean Layoffs, Blow to Superintendent

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Cleveland voters last week soundly rejected a levy intended to bolster the school district’s finances, a move widely interpreted as a referendum on the performance of its leader, Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

Two-thirds of the voters who turned out for the Aug. 2 special election cast their ballots against Issue 3, which would have raised more than $45 million to restore the jobs of some teachers and security guards, as well as bring back sports and after-school programs that were cut as the district’s financial woes deepened over the past few years. A portion would also have gone to alleviate future anticipated debt.

Disappointment registers on the faces of former Cleveland student Lawrence White, left, Cleveland schools’ chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and another Cleveland high school graduate, Sierra Roberts, front right, during the announcement that the school tax levy failed.
Disappointment registers on the faces of former Cleveland student Lawrence White, left, Cleveland schools’ chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and another Cleveland high school graduate, Sierra Roberts, front right, during the announcement that the school tax levy failed.
—John Kuntz/The Plain Dealer

Alan Seifullah, a spokesman for the 65,000-student district, said officials were weighing whether to put another levy proposal on the November ballot. It’s too soon to say whether more layoffs would be needed this year, he said, but without more revenue, the district might have to find new savings by cutting personnel or closing even more schools than the 11 shuttered in June.

District leaders are “devastated” by the defeat of the measure, and see the result as a lack of community support for Cleveland’s young people, Mr. Seifullah said.

But he said he does not view it as a judgment on the performance of the district’s chief executive officer, Ms. Byrd-Bennett. Mr. Seifullah noted that, in recent years, the high school graduation rate has climbed from 28 percent to 50 percent, and that the rate of academic gains has outpaced statewide averages.

He said Ms. Byrd-Bennett, who has led the Cleveland schools since 1998, “is reflecting on what the future holds,” but he declined to say whether she would leave when her contract expires at the end of September. The chief executive officer did not return a call seeking comment on her plans.

Uncertain Future

Some observers saw the results as a striking lack of support for the district’s direction and concluded Ms. Byrd-Bennett’s departure would be imminent.

“I think they’ve lost confidence in Barbara Byrd-Bennett. This is a referendum on her,” declared Jerry Austin, a Cleveland-based political consultant. He is advising Mayor Jane L. Campbell, who backed the levy, in her re-election bid.

“Everyone who takes a position like that has a time frame in which to succeed, and then it’s time to move on,” Mr. Austin said of the schools chief. “She took it to where it is now. Maybe it’s time for someone else to take it from here.”

Even teachers’ union leaders thought it unlikely the chief executive officer would remain at the helm in the face of the levy defeat.

“I would be amazed if she did stay,” said Meryl T. Johnson, the first vice president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, a 4,500-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “It would be, ‘If I can’t get a community to love these children the way I do, then I have no choice.’ ”

Ms. Johnson said her interviews with scores of voters before the election showed that older residents’ frustration with the misbehavior of young people in their neighborhoods fueled the defeat, as well as their resistance to paying higher property taxes.

The union’s argument—that the hike would amount to less each day than buying the daily newspaper—apparently went nowhere, Ms. Johnson said.

Union leaders are frustrated and “heartbroken,” she said, that people did not see the levy as a way to deliver crucial services to young people.

More than 1,400 teachers have been laid off in the past few years, and class sizes have risen as declining enrollment and property-tax receipts, soaring health-care costs, and leftover debt from when a state panel oversaw the district have whittled its budget. For fiscal 2006, the budget is $558 million, down from $667 million two years ago, said Mr. Seifullah, the district spokesman. Anticipated debt for fiscal 2007 is at $33 million. Ohio law does not allow a school district to run a deficit.

In the campaign against Issue 3, many lawns sported signs that read, “Don’t Reward Failure.” Levy backers blamed the news media, contending that they overlooked the district’s successes and focused on its failures.

“We’ve never had a superintendent who’s been slammed as hard as she was,” said Ms. Johnson.

But opponents of the levy said taxpayers shouldn’t have to funnel more money to a school system marked by financial, academic, and student-discipline problems.

“We truly want to see our children get the best education possible. But I and many others were against [the levy] because we feel we’re not getting what we’re paying for,” said James D. Hereford, an automotive-repair- shop owner who helped lead the fight against Issue 3.

Fueling Defeat

Chris Carmody, who managed the campaign for Issue 3, said the city’s most-frequent voters, who tend to be older and more conservative, and with fewer ties to city schools, dominated the 16 percent turnout. He also said the “deck was stacked against the district” because the levy was in a special election, without major contests to draw a wider range of voters to the polls.

Mr. Carmody speculated that it was tough for voters, who rejected another proposed levy last November, to understand why the city needed to seek more money after they approved a $335 million bond issue for school construction in 2001.

“It’s hard for people to distinguish between a bond issue and an operating levy,” he said. He noted Cleveland voters last passed an operating levy in 1996.

When the bond issue passed in 2001, Ms. Byrd-Bennett was a popular new face in education, Mr. Carmody said. The results of the Issue 3 contest could signal that voters feel it’s time for a change, he said.

“In some ways, a new face might help politically,” Mr. Carmody said. “Voters in any election want a new face after a long tenure. But I’m not sure that’s how we should be making our decisions about supporting the district.”

Vol. 24, Issue 44, Pages 1, 18

Published in Print: August 10, 2005, as Crucial Levy Goes Down in Cleveland
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