School & District Management

Cleveland Budget Cuts Hurt Gains, Departing Schools Chief Laments

By Catherine Gewertz — August 30, 2005 4 min read
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Civic and education leaders in Cleveland have banded together to undertake the search for a new schools chief, saying they want to continue the progress that has taken root under Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who is leaving after a nearly seven-year tenure.

Barbara-Byrd Bennett, the head of Cleveland's schools, hugs an intern Aug. 5 after announcing she will not seek a new contract.

Three days after the defeat of a proposed property-tax levy intended to stabilize the financially struggling school district, Ms. Byrd-Bennett announced Aug. 5 that she would not seek to renew her contract when it expires Sept. 30. She has offered to remain in charge for up to a year longer to ensure a smooth transition to new leadership. (“Crucial Levy Goes Down in Cleveland,” Aug. 10, 2005)

Two of Cleveland’s nine school board members, Louise Dempsey and Larry Davis, have been named to coordinate the search for a new chief executive officer, in consultation with Mayor Jane L. Campbell and an advisory panel of civic and education leaders. Meanwhile, the mayor must also find a replacement for Margaret Hopkins, the school board chairwoman, who resigned Aug. 22 to take a teaching position at the University of Toledo.

The Ohio legislature in 1998 enabled Cleveland’s mayor to appoint the school board and choose the superintendent. Then-Mayor Michael R. White brought Ms. Byrd-Bennett, an administrator for the New York City schools, to Cleveland that year. The mayoral-control law now allows the appointed school board to choose a new CEO “in concurrence with” the mayor.

Worrisome ‘Spiral’

Ms. Byrd-Bennett said in a recent interview that she had already decided to leave the district before the levy went down by a ratio of 2-to-1. Years of deepening financial problems—driven by inadequate state funding, rising health-care costs, and declining enrollment—had forced her to make $168 million in cuts over several years to the district’s budget, which is now $600 million, and to lay off 1,400 people.

“Things that we put in place that needed to be in place began to vanish,” she said. “I felt almost as if there was no way for us to get out of this spiral.”

Even with the 65,000-student district’s difficulties, however, Ms. Byrd-Bennett believes the “foundations are absolutely in place” for her successor. When she arrived, she was shocked to find that the district lacked many basic “structures and systems” of operation. She focused on building that infrastructure—fiscal checks and balances, data systems to track student performance and attendance, staff technology training—to focus on academics.

Ms. Byrd-Bennett drove the adoption of districtwide academic standards, establishing them before Ohio’s were completed. She instituted a department of professional development and worked with the teachers’ union to create training tailored to the new standards. She began a division of evaluation and assessment to examine data to guide instruction, and retooled human-resources operations in an attempt to procure a teacher corps better suited to Cleveland’s high-need students.

She also reinstituted arts programs that had been cut from many schools, phased out middle schools in favor of K-8 arrangements, and opened a group of alternative schools aimed at cutting dropout and expulsion rates.

“It was really creating a school system from the ground up,” Ms. Byrd-Bennett said.

The Mantra

Meryl T. Johnson, the first vice president of the 4,500-member Cleveland Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, credits Ms. Byrd-Bennett with strengthening teaching with the standards and corresponding training. The schools chief’s intensive focus on literacy in all grades—part of her mantra, “Standards, Literacy, Vision”—paired with her knowledge of pedagogy made her “a strong instructional and inspirational leader,” Ms. Johnson said.

Ms. Byrd-Bennett placed teacher-coaches in the elementary schools, helping drive increases in state test scores more quickly than those seen statewide, though the absolute scores still lagged behind those of most children in Ohio.

Charlise L. Lyles, the editor of Catalyst-Cleveland, which tracks school issues in the city, said a teacher survey by the magazine found many educators cited the coaches as instrumental in helping them improve instruction.

But in the last couple of years, the schools chief was dogged by questions about her $278,000 annual salary and first-class air travel, and about the district’s investment decisions. Persistent discipline problems in the schools, as well as the budget deficits, which required deep cuts, were also held against her.

Those controversies were heavily covered by the local news media, and Ms. Byrd-Bennett herself acknowledges that her staff was often too overwhelmed with other crises to counter by publicizing the district’s successes, or explaining the complexities of why it was struggling.

Mark F. Thimmig, the CEO and president of White Hat Management, an Akron-based private company that runs 10 charter schools in Cleveland, rejects the argument that the schools chief lost support because the public did not understand the progress she had initiated.

“People do not want to continue to see more money go to a failing system that year after year has one excuse after another about why it couldn’t accomplish what its charge is,” he said.

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