School & District Management

Compromise Set on Improving Cleveland Schools

By Christina A. Samuels — April 24, 2012 3 min read
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Cleveland’s mayor, who controls the city’s 44,000-student school district, and the local teachers’ union have reached a compromise on an improvement plan that would allow the district to intervene directly in low-performing schools and develop a new salary scale for teachers that takes student performance into account. At the same time, the plan would protect collective bargaining and prevent teachers from being laid off just because they are based at low-performing schools.

But a sticking point remains: Mayor Frank G. Jackson, a Democrat, would like to see Cleveland share school revenue raised through tax increases with top-performing charter schools within the district’s boundaries. State lawmakers would need to pass legislation to allow Cleveland that power.

“This agreement is far from perfect,” David Quolke, the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement after the compromise was reached earlier this month. “There is give and take, but because it holds the promise of helping students in Cleveland succeed and it protects the voice teachers have in building a quality education system, it is an agreement we support and hopefully will be able to build off of.”

The long-struggling Cleveland district has been under mayoral control since 1998, the only district in Ohio with that management structure.

In February, the mayor introduced what he called his “transformation” plan for the district. Despite improvement in many schools, the plan notes, 55 percent of Cleveland’s schools—district-run and charter—in 2010-11 were in “academic watch” or “academic emergency,” the two lowest ratings given to schools by the state. In addition, only 43 percent of the district’s 5th graders scored proficient in reading and 30 percent did so in mathematics on state exams during that school year.

The district’s four-year graduation rate is 63 percent.

Mr. Jackson’s plan revolves around turning Cleveland into a “portfolio” school district, with a network of district-run and charter schools that are held to the same high standards of performance. Denver, Hartford, Conn., and New Orleans are examples of other portfolio districts. (“‘Portfolio’ Districts,” October 14, 2009.)

Broad Changes

The mayoral plan came with several controversial provisions. One of the most troublesome, from the union’s perspective, was a “fresh start” proposal that would allow the district to negotiate all union contracts from scratch, rather than building on or subtracting from existing agreements. If the two sides could not agree, the district wanted the power to impose a contract.

The teachers’ union compared that proposal to Senate Bill 5, a law restricting collective bargaining for public-employee unions that Ohio voters repealed in November.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the Ohio House and Senate proposed legislation that would have allowed the plan from Mr. Jackson to be put into action. Gov. John R. Kasich, a Republican, said he supported the transformation plan and would sign enabling legislation into law.

But after a series of meetings, the April 12 compromise between the mayor and the Cleveland union took the “fresh start” provision off the table. The mayor’s office said it was no longer needed because the union agreed to other provisions of the transformation plan.

In addition to intervening in low-performing schools and developing a differentiated salary schedule, the compromise would allow the district to fill teaching positions using factors other than teacher seniority. The district would also get wider discretion in granting teachers tenure and streamlining dismissal procedures.

The city of Cleveland would also set the calendar for the school year and school day, and teacher layoffs would be based on evaluations and teaching quality, with tenure and seniority used only as tiebreakers.

“Our focus has been on finding a path forward that is both good for kids and fair for adults, and I’m very pleased that we have succeeded in doing so,” Eric S. Gordon, the district’s chief executive officer, said in a statement.

State lawmakers must still introduce enabling legislation ratifying the agreement between the district and the union.

In the midst of the wrangling between the mayor and the teachers’ union, the school board voted April 17 to lay off more than 500 teachers and 57 support-staff employees to help close a $66 million budget deficit out of a total budget of $1.4 billion. The board also cut specialty-subject periods, such as art, music, and physical education, and shaved the school day for students in kindergarten through 8th grade by 50 minutes.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Agreement Reached on Mayor’s Plan for Improving Cleveland Schools

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