School & District Management

Clevelanders to Weigh in on Mayoral Control of Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — October 30, 2002 6 min read
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From Hartford, Conn., to Los Angeles, voters next week will decide issues of crucial importance to their schools. In some cities, voters will say whether they are willing to foot big bills for new buildings. In others, they will determine who should steer their schools.

One of the most significant local contests on the Nov. 5 ballot is in Cleveland, where citizens will decide whether to keep a 4-year-old system of mayoral control of their district or return to an elected school board.

Only a handful of cities have adopted the mayoral-control model, but those that have are large urban districts such as Boston, Chicago, and, most recently, New York. As school reform advocates debate the role of governance in improving achievement, the Cleveland decision is being closely watched.

“It’s a big election,” said Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University professor of education and author of a recent report showing that mayoral control of schools rarely produces significant academic improvement. “A defeat for mayoral control in Cleveland would be widely noticed in other cities and would be a significant setback for the movement toward mayoral takeover of schools.”

Another governance change is on the ballot in Hartford, a district whose academic and fiscal troubles led to a state takeover in 1997. As local control is phased back in, citizens next week will choose school board members for the first time in six years.

Before the takeover, the 24,500-student district had an elected, seven-member board. The new panel will be composed of four members chosen by voters, and three appointed by Hartford’s mayor.

Also on the Hartford ballot are measures that ask whether the board should be expanded to nine members, and whether the mayor should be given additional power, including the right to appoint his school board members without the City Council’s assent, district spokeswoman Andrea Comer said.

Bond Decisions

The elections are bread-and-butter ones for Los Angeles, Houston, and Cincinnati, as voters are asked to approve large bond issues that would focus on renovating old schools or building new ones.

Los Angeles has the largest such measure. The proposed $3.35 billion bond sale would enable the Los Angeles Unified district to add 112,000 classroom seats by renovating, expanding, or adding schools, said Glenn Gritzner, a special assistant to Superintendent Roy Romer.

The 737,000-student district is so crowded that 16,000 students are bused to other schools because of insufficient space in their neighborhoods, Mr. Gritzner said, and many schools run year round. The bond money would end busing for space reasons, ease crowding, and accommodate a growth rate projected at 10,000 or more students annually. The plan hinges, though, on approval the same day of a $13 billion state bond issue, which would provide $1.5 billion to $2 billion in matching funds for Los Angeles.

In the 210,000-student Houston district, school leaders hope to replace 20 schools and renovate or expand 40 others with the proceeds of a proposed $808 million bond sale. If a $480 million bond issue is approved in Cincinnati, that district will build 35 new school buildings and renovate 31 others in the next decade, with the help of $210 million in state matching funds.

On Cleveland’s ballot, Issue 4 asks voters whether they wish to retain a system in which the mayor appoints a chief executive officer and a nine- member school board for the district. A federal judge placed the ailing district under state control in 1995, and the Ohio legislature designed the new structure in 1998, mandating that voters express their views on the matter this year.

Even as voters debate how the Cleveland schools should be run, many agree that the district’s situation has improved since 1998, when Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a veteran New York City educator with a respected record, was appointed by then-Mayor Michael R. White to lead the 77,000-student district. She now serves under Mayor Jane L. Campbell.

Cleveland’s scores on Ohio’s proficiency tests, while still low, have risen. Attendance and graduation rates have improved. The district has fewer teacher vacancies, and nearly all its teachers are certified. Scores of new schools are being built in a $1.2 billion facilities-improvement drive. More grant money is flowing into the district, and it has replaced its $200 million debt with budget surpluses.

A Forum on Democracy

The campaign around Issue 4 has been less a forum on Ms. Byrd-Bennett’s competence than a debate about how to secure effective school management without robbing voters of their voice.

Those who want Cleveland to return to an elected school board have warned of the dangers of surrendering voting rights, a potent message in a school district in which 80 percent of the students are members of minority groups.

Among African- Americans, the issue has become especially divisive. Some Clevelanders claim that black leaders who favored mayoral control “sold out” the black community by advocating narrower voting rights after a history of disenfranchisement.

“Too much has happened for black people to give up their right to vote,” said Annaliesa Henley, a Cuyahoga County special education teacher who has helped lead the opposition to mayoral control.

“This is not about Barbara Byrd-Bennett,” Ms. Henley said. “It’s about my right to choose my elected officials.”

Stanley E. Tolliver, a former school board member and lawyer active in city politics, believes it is shortsighted for Cleveland voters to agree to an appointed board when that system could be led by less competent people in the future. And he is pained when he thinks of his 18-year-old grandson, who might never get to choose school leaders.

Those who support the current system insist that ensuring educational opportunity for children justifies a modification of traditional voting procedures. And they contend it is a modification—not an elimination—of voters’ rights.

A citizens’ committee nominates school board candidates for the mayor’s choosing. Supporters contend that voters don’t give up their power to pick school leaders, but shift it instead to their mayoral vote, since the system makes the mayor accountable for school performance.

Arnold R. Pinkney now leads the drive to retain the mayoral-control system. He laments Cleveland’s many years of school board squabbles and revolving-door leadership—11 superintendents in 18 years, none of whom stayed more than two years. That chaos, he argues, was replaced by stability when the new leadership team took over.

“This structure is what was needed for Cleveland,” said Mr. Pinkney, who was school board president for eight years in the 1970s. “If the old system wasn’t working and children paid the price for it, we owe it to these kids to make changes.”

The improvements have been a powerful force in converting some opponents of mayoral control into supporters. The 6,000-member Cleveland Teachers Union opposed the change, but now favors maintaining it.

“Barbara Byrd-Bennett is a visionary and believes in our children,” said Meryl T. Johnson, the second vice president of the American Federation of Teachers affiliate. “The elected board was too focused on nonsense to focus on education. Now we have that focus, and we have stability.”

Ms. Byrd-Bennett believes that history has demonstrated that elected boards have been unable to fulfill their role of creating high-quality schools in Cleveland. If voters choose to revert to an elected board, she said, she will step down after a transition period.

The current arrangement, she said, has given her both the freedom to hire the talent she believes is necessary, and the obligation to “move the system” to deliver a good education for children.

As an African-American woman, Ms. Byrd-Bennett said, she is sensitive to concerns about disenfranchisement. But she believes that voters’ power to oust a mayor—and the critical need for good schools—justify an alternative way of managing a district in which so many poor children have been deprived of a first-rate education.

“I’m willing to suspend our grown-up rights,” she said, “to allow the rights of children to take precedence.”

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