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Schools Need Sporting Chance

By John Fox · December 6th, 2006 · Editorial

The public debate over the correct future size of the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) district wrapped up recently, and as usual it included little actual public debate. School board members voted Nov. 27 to accept the plan they told Superintendent Rosa Blackwell to write.

As a result, the rebuilding plan CPS sold to Cincinnati voters in 2004 has been scaled back to 51 schools from the original 66. A majority of the board felt that a projected near-term system enrollment of 32,000 -- vs. the planned 38,000 students -- dictated fewer facilities.

I certainly appreciate the merits of not wanting to waste taxpayer money, and I also feel the pain of parents who love their kids' school and don't want it to close.

Still, building a system of brand new facilities with the idea that fewer and fewer people actually want to use them seems like the wrong approach. Student demand and school supply are doing a classic chicken-and-egg dance.

I thought of an analogy: What if the Reds and Bengals decided during their stadium construction phase a few years ago to scale back their seating capacities?

Those decisions probably would have made economic sense. The Bengals in particular had been in a decade-long slump, universally recognized as the NFL's worst franchise, and attendance had fallen off.

They sold Hamilton County voters on a sales tax increase to build a new football stadium on prime riverfront land, promising a state-of-the-art facility to make the game experience a quantum leap over the old days at run-down Cinergy Field. Not necessarily anxious to pay more taxes, voters nonetheless agreed that an upgraded football stadium would improve the community.

What if, a couple years into the planning/building phase, the Bengals decided that the new facility had too many seats? Paul Brown Stadium was planned to hold 65,000 fans, an increase over Cinergy Field's capacity, but fewer and fewer people liked the team each year and fewer and fewer tickets were being sold.

It might have made economic sense for the Bengals to conclude that the new stadium should seat just 50,000. Trends over the previous decade were suggesting that might be the maximum number of Bengals fans in the Tristate, so why have 15,000 empty seats mocking you every home game -- seats you paid to build knowing they wouldn't be used?

OK, the analogy breaks down a bit here, because the Bengals used public funds to build Paul Brown Stadium and therefore wouldn't have felt compelled to make that decision.

The Reds, however, spent a lot of their own money to build Great American Ball Park. So let's switch the story to them.

New baseball facilities these days are designed to be smaller and cozier than the multi-purpose bowls they replace, and the Reds followed suit. Great American seats 42,000, a significant drop from what Cinergy Field used to house for baseball.

But what if, knowing attendance was lagging for a team that hadn't won a championship since 1990, Reds ownership redid the stadium plans on the fly and announced they were going to have only 30,000 seats? Again, why pay for seats no one was going to use?

After all, a decade of trends showed that other than Opening Day a smaller stadium would accommodate Reds fans just fine while cutting construction costs for both the owners and taxpayers. It could have been an easily justified economic decision.

And yet wouldn't county residents who voted for the tax hike have been up in arms? Wouldn't they have felt like they were sold a bill of goods?

Remember that the Bengals and the Reds hit us hard during the sales tax campaign that new stadiums would put Cincinnati on the map, would keep us competitive with rival cities, would be a shining example of how much we care.

Fewer seats would have felt like a retreat, an admission of failure.

You know where I'm going with this: A huge reason to build sports stadiums is to entice new fans and bring back old fans with something new and exciting, and once you get them back in the seats you win them over with better players and improved performance.

No one in their right mind spends a billion dollars to build a state-of-the-art stadium in anticipation of fewer fans and steadily deteriorating results on the field. Even if you were using taxpayer money and not your own, you just don't run a professional sports franchise that way.

The basic business model in pro sports is this: Invest in facilities, attract more fans, increase revenues, sign better players, win a championship, attract more fans, etc., etc.

That's the idea, anyway, and you can argue whether all franchises fully embrace that approach. But the model franchises, the big winners, do.

So here is Cincinnati Public Schools management, the elected school board, taking a billion dollars of public money to build state-of-the-art urban public school facilities in anticipation of general disinterest from the community at large. What's wrong with this picture?

Basically it's how you interpret cause and effect.

The school board is saying that falling enrollment has caused a change to the rebuilding plan they sold to Cincinnati voters. Others suggest that, as with the stadium analogy, better facilities would cause more families to enroll in the CPS system.

I'm with the second group.

I'm especially bullish on Cincinnati Public Schools because of the "community learning center" approach they're taking with the new facilities. That's the model adopted from New York City and elsewhere in which schools become seven-days-a-week, 52-weeks-a-year neighborhood centers that involve everyone, no matter where your kids go to school or even if you don't have kids.

My daughter is a third grader in the CPS system, and I attended a number of meetings during the community engagement process to design her new school. We were told that the state of Ohio, which is paying a big chunk of the construction costs, dictated certain parameters for each new school (number of classrooms, minimum cafeteria/gym requirements, etc.) but that the extras were up to us.

As a community, did we want a police substation at the school? A neighborhood health clinic? A theater? Each community could put a wish list together to be incorporated into the school's design, with one catch: We had to find our own funding and a way to operate these programs.

At each meeting, we were reminded of the unique opportunity we had. How many times in your life, the facilitator asked, can you participate in designing a brand new public school in your own city neighborhood?

Since I drop my daughter off every day at the front door of a brick school built in 1888, I knew how lucky I was. I still feel really good about the plans for our new school and the education my daughter, and hopefully my toddler son, will receive there.

That engagement experience was promised to every family in Cincinnati when the facilities property tax levy was put on the ballot in 2004. And now it's been taken away from some of them.

Do you think the tax levy would have passed if the school board had promoted it as a 51-school plan instead of a 66-school plan? Probably not.

The CPS board is split on the plan, of course, with a majority favoring it but at least two members opposed. The Cincinnati Federation of Teachers is adamantly opposed. And, based on her plan presentations, Blackwell doesn't seem too thrilled by the whole thing either.

When the board pressed her to accept their projection of a system enrollment of 31,550, Blackwell came back with an obvious "Fuck you" plan that cut students from the district's most prestigious programs, Walnut Hills High School and the Montessori schools. Her message: You want cuts, I've got your cuts right here. That's not a direct quote, you understand.

After the expected hullabaloo from magnet school parents and anyone with a brain, the school board rearranged the cuts and inched the total enrollment up a notch. And despite some spirited defense of the targeted schools by neighborhood advocates, the cuts were approved.

The city is shrinking, families are leaving the district and we won't build new schools for people who don't want them, the school board has decided. Besides, the polar ice caps are melting and we're all screwed, so what's the point anyway?

Well, there's always a way around a problem if you have the will and the creativity to seek solutions. Part of the reason Walnut Hills is an amazing school is that parents and alumni spend big bucks to give it what it needs to succeed. The School for Creative and Performing Arts raised millions of private dollars to supplement its CPS allotment in order to design a world-class facility.

When my daughter's school needs something, the parents don't wait around for CPS administration to provide it -- we do it ourselves. I know of families in other CPS schools (and lots of private schools) who do the same thing.

Why not get creative with the perceived enrollment decline? Maybe ask parents in the at-risk schools to sign pledges to keep their kids in the system. Maybe look at the trend of charter school problems and see an opportunity to bring those families back into CPS.

I don't want to be cynical and think the school board has cut facilities because they want to eliminate teaching jobs or because they're over budget on the few schools already completed. I want to think they're simply upholding their fiduciary responsibility.

But public schools are about more than dollars and more than new buildings. They're really all about the future -- and if you're pessimistic about our schools, can you be optimistic about our future?

Cincinnati has been struggling for years with declining population, rising crime and lots of self-doubt. Do you think Mark Mallory ran for mayor last year so he could be the guy who turns out the lights when the city finally goes under?

During last year's campaign Mallory briefly mentioned an idea about the mayor being more involved in decisions regarding Cincinnati Public Schools, but he quickly withdrew it when people accused him of a power grab. Maybe that's a concept that should be revisited, if for no other reason than he'd inject some enthusiasm and positivity into the planning process.

At this point, no idea should be taken off the CPS table -- other than closing 15 schools.

Contact john fox: jfox(at)citybeat.com



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