Clevelanders agreed last week to a tax hike that will raise millions of dollars to repair and renovate the city’s aging public schools.
The successful bond issue will generate $335 million for school construction and qualifies the district for $500 million in state assistance. The measure also guarantees that $3 million will be raised annually for building maintenance, an area that has been underfunded for years. The bonds will be repaid over 25 years.
“It’s phenomenal,” said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the district’s chief executive officer. “I thought it would be a tighter margin than it was.”
While 60 percent of voters approved the May 8 bond issue, 40 percent opposed it. Residents of the city’s East Side overwhelming supported the construction measure; a majority of voters on the West Side—who historically have been reluctant to raise taxes—opposed it. About 27 percent of registered voters turned out at the polls.
It had been five years since Clevelanders backed a school spending measure. In 1996, voters supported an operating levy that raises $67 million a year for the district.
The collapse last October of the roof over East High School’s gymnasium sparked Cleveland leaders’ effort to secure new money to repair district schools. While no one was injured at East High, the gravity of what could have occurred had a significant impact on the district and the community.
The 76,000-student district plans to spend about $80 million annually over the next 10 years to shore up its deteriorating campuses and make much-needed improvements. The average age of the district’s 122 schools is 51.
While the bond issue guarantees repairs at every school, it falls short of meeting the estimated $1.4 billion price tag for tending to the district’s chronic building needs.
District officials had remained guardedly optimistic throughout the campaign, acknowledging that voters were less than confident in the school system’s ability to manage its money. Many voters still remember that promised renovations were not all completed following the district’s 1987 bond issue, which raised $60 million.
In a move to reassure voters, City Council members had requested an itemized list of repairs slated for each school, but the district declined to provide it. The district’s priority list of repairs won’t be finished until next month, and public meetings about the projects will be held in the fall.
Mayor Michael R. White and Ms. Byrd-Bennett have appointed a 24-member bond-accountability commission to track how the money raised from the bond is spent.
In an effort to seal a victory, Ms. Byrd-Bennett and her staff left little to chance.
From the pulpits of area churches to city street corners, the district CEO led the battle cry for the campaign to rebuild Cleveland schools. Signs bearing the slogan “Safe Schools for Cleveland’s Children” dotted the lawns of homes and school campuses across the city. Students made personal appeals in television commercials and helped register voters at their schools.
“I went to anybody who would listen,” Ms. Byrd-Bennett said. “Sometimes you have to go into the lion’s den.”
Many political observers suggested that the bond issue was a quasi- referendum on the futures of both Mr. White and Ms. Byrd-Bennett. Mr. White, a Democrat who is expected to run for his fourth term as mayor this coming fall, assumed control of the district in 1998 and named Ms. Byrd-Bennett CEO. Under the Ohio law giving him that power, Mr. White also appoints the nine-member school board.
The school bond victory could bode well for both Mr. White and Ms. Byrd-Bennett. Voters will consider keeping a mayoral-appointed school board in the fall of 2002.
A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2001 edition of Education Week as Cleveland Voters OK Bonds To Repair Schools