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Widening the Field

Cincinnati Public School Board race draws increased interest

By Matthew Cunningham · October 21st, 2009 · News

With a dozen candidates vying for the four open seats on the board overseeing Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS), this year’s election is turning into a big event for voters.

“It’s probably the largest field in recent history,” says David Little, campaign manager for incumbent Catherine Ingram and challengers Ceair Baggett, Joyce Hooks and Lisa Schare.

The four Democrat-endorsed candidates are running as a team. A total of 11 candidates or potential contenders approached the party for endorsement, Little says, and among those who didn’t receive its nod were incumbents Melanie Bates and Eileen Cooper Reed.

Instead, Bates and Reed — who are registered Democrats — are again endorsed by the Charter Committee, Cincinnati’s unofficial third political party, just as they were in 2005.

The heightened interest in the CPS election reflects growing concern about how the district is being operated, observers say.

“Most people recognize we need an infusion of new vision and change in direction from where the board has headed in recent days,” Little says.

On the Democratic side, first-time candidate Baggett is a Xavier University graduate student in education who works as a manager for Cincinnati Bell. He also is a substitute teacher in the Great Oaks school district.

Baggett lives in Mount Airy and owns a home in the West End that he’s remodeling. If elected, he wants to address “an out-of-control discipline problem” in many schools, utilize child behavior experts and standardize disciplinary procedures across all schools.

Also, Baggett wants more relationships with the private sector, like the one between Cincinnati Bell and Robert A. Taft Information/Technology High School, where he attended.

Hooks, of North Avondale, is a retired CPS teacher. She supports implementing a “social emotional curriculum” to improve student achievement. Research shows that such an approach reduces truancy and lessens violence, Hooks adds. Further, she wants the district to consult with taxpayers “early and often” to ensure the schools forge a better relationship with the com munity.

Ingram lives in Mount Auburn and works as a lecturer at Northern Kentucky University. She is seeking her fifth board term. Ingram says she will hold the superintendent and treasurer directly accountable for district achievement. She adds, “(we) must accept that gaps in achievement exist by willingly discussing racism, sexism, classism and ableism. The focus must be on what a child needs to be successful and whatever it takes to accomplish that.”

Schare lives in Pleasant Ridge and teaches at Princeton High School. She is a practicing artist who believes expanding pre-school enrollment and early intervention with children is essential to improving student achievement.

Running as Charterites, incumbents Bates and Reed are hopeful about another term.

Bates, of North Avondale, is seeking her third term and works for the LifeCenter Organ Donor Network.

She is often at odds with the teachers’ union and says she wants “to ensure the highest quality teachers in the classroom.” One of her priorities is shielding schools from street crime, Bates adds.

Reed, also of North Avondale, is a retired lawyer who’s a former director of the Children’s Defense Fund. Although Reed says she wants to make CPS’s operations more “transparent,” she was the board president this year who tried to block The Enquirer from accessing applications for the superintendent’s job by claiming they weren’t public records until removed from a post office box, a claimed scoffed at by media law experts.

Also running as a Charterite is Vanessa White. Another North Avondale resident, White is a frequent CPS volunteer.

White works as community engagement and strategic initiatives director for the Fine Arts Fund, and she says the same skills could be useful to the school board.

White believes CPS must appeal to all civic stakeholders, not just parents, to help improve the school system.

In years past, Republican endorsements were rare for school board seats but that has changed, according to GOP leaders.

“We expect to consistently offer voters alternatives,” says party Chairman Alex Triantifilou. “Part of what I wanted to do is challenge where we can challenge.”

In the CPS race, that means endorsing Hyde Park attorney Chris McDowell. Triantifilou said the party also had informal talks with candidate John Banner, but they mutually decided against an endorsement. Banner is a city employee, and it could’ve raised conflict-of-interest issues.

“I think he identifies with our philosophy,” says Triantifilou.

McDowell, who helps tutor third-graders in reading and math, wants to encourage more parental involvement. He believes the district must curtail its spending. Further, McDowell says, “the closed door meetings of the past must stop. The people have a right to know what is going on and how their money is being spent.”

Both McDowell and Banner are campaigning as fiscal conservatives, and Banner has received an endorsement from the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST).

“It seems to me we need some diversity,” says Triantifilou. “I think the Republican philosophy could be particularly valuable on the school board.”

Banner, a Clifton resident, wants to enact controls on spending at every level of the district. Banner drew some criticism when he said the district could get more parents involved with school activities if they were offered free McDonald’s fast food to attend.

Both major parties’ talk of change and diversity comes on the heels of a difficult period for the school board. A failed superintendent search in 2008 saw the board facing a lawsuit over records transparency. That scenario occurred again in March, during another attempt to find a superintendent.

These missteps, along with talk of significant disharmony among the board’s members, has given contenders on all sides of the political fence plenty to talk about during campaign speeches.

For yet another party in contention, the crowded field is as much a positive thing as it is a challenge. Southwest Ohio Green Party memb is campaigning with the backing of that party.

“We probably wouldn’t have considered endorsing a candidate if Jason wasn’t running,” said Southwest Ohio Green Party convener Josh Krekeler. He explained that while a school board seat may seem to have little to do with the party’s platform of ecosystem preservation, nonviolence and community-based economics, there are connections. Part of the party’s plank focuses on participatory democracy, and Krekeler sees a big field as an example of that philosophy in action.

Haap, of Westwood, is an English teacher at Princeton High School. He’s better known as “the Dean of Cincinnati,” a political activist who runs a popular blog. Haap supports proportional cuts by requiring central office administrators to reduce their budget when cutting services to students. Also, he wants regular “accountability meetings” with each principal, and proposed an anti-bullying policy aimed at kids targeted because of their sexual orientation.

Two full-fledged indepedents also are running.

Curtis Wells, of Avondale, is a frequent CPS critic.

Employed as a substitute teacher, Wells wants CPS to cut back on spending by agreeing not to seek any tax levy renewals for six years, and by starting negotiations to reduce all district salaries by 33 percent. Further, he wants to step up efforts at “dropout recovery,” where dropouts get assistance at earning GEDs.

The other independent is Mary Welsh Schluter of Hyde Park. She works as an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati and is a graduate of Harvard Business School.

Schluter dislikes the recent prevailing wage rule approved by the board, stating it will disqualify many small businesses from winning district contracts. Also, she views the role of board members as “strategic advisers,” who aren’t involved in daily operations and micromanagement.

With more people taking an active interest in wanting to shape the school district, observers believe the public will benefit.

The influx of candidates is a good thing, Krekeler says. “For voters who take the time to follow the race, it’s going to give them better choices overall.”

ELECTION CENTRAL (here) has CityBeat's endorsements on this race and other races and issues and an archive of other election news coverage. You can also download our "Who's Endorsing Whom" charts to see how issues and candidates fared with the local media, political action committees and other interest groups.



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